There are some colors, when paired together, that just look good. They make sense, they match. There are also those colors which, put side by side, make your eyes burn. Ok, maybe not actually burn, but you know what I mean.
The question is: why? Why do certain color combinations look serene or exciting and others garish or completely boring? I want to explore the why of color combinations, some of the science and some of the psychology and how you, as a business person, can put those colors to work for you.
Before we dive into the “why” of certain color schemes and how to use them to speak to your potential clients, let’s cover some color basics to make sure we’re all on the same page. COLOURlover pros and veterans, feel free to jump to the next section.
For the purpose of this post, I’ll be using the Red/Yellow/Blue color model as the primary colors on our subtractive color wheel (this subtractive wheel is what painters and artists use). For a look at the use of the Cyan/Magenta/Yellow color model used by printers, feel free to take a look at our recents posts discussing RGB versus CMYK conversions.
The Red/Yellow/Blue color model is what most of us grew up learning. Arranged in correspondence with the wavelengths of light, the original color wheel was invented by Isaac Newton. We wrote a complete history of the various color wheels recently, if you are curious and want to know more.
The color wheel that most are familiar with usually looks like this:
Secondary colors on this wheel are made by combining 2 primary colors. Likewise, tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary and a secondary hue.
Source: Eva Williams
Lastly, let’s talk about saturation and value. Our perception of a color is greatly affected by its saturation and value - which plays a huge role in finding color combinations that are pleasing and achieve the end you’re aiming for.
Saturation is, simply, the intensity of a color. It is determined by how little or how much gray is present in a color. Colors with gray added are also called tones.
Value is a smidgen more complicated. If a hue is the purest form of a color, values are created with the addition of either black or white. A color mixed with white is known as a tint while a color mixed with black is a shade.
Now that we’re all pulling from a common knowledge base, let’s move on to the science side of things. With color, as with music, there are a wealth of scientific and mathematic reasons as to why certain colors look good or bad next to one another. As we take a look at the following color schemes (which constitute only a few of the many different schemes available), I’ll touch on the basics of “why” each color scheme works or doesn’t. My primary goal here is to layout simple guidelines so that you can make smart, useful color choices that convey your business message effectively.
A complementary color scheme uses colors that are exactly opposite each other on the color wheel. As such, they enhance each other when used as a pair. They balance and push each other; one hue is warm, the other cool.
Complementary color schemes are ideal in a couple of different scenarios. First, if you have a limited budget for a print job and can’t afford a color bonanza, a layout done in complementary colors allows you to have a colorful design without breaking the bank. Another benefit is that in addition to saving money, you get a maximum visual impact since complementary colors complete each other and look the most pure next to each other (greens look greener next to red and blues are bluest when cast against orange). You see examples of this in the real world in everything from business advertisements to the makeup aisle. Have you noticed the influx of makeup geared towards making the color of your eyes stand out? ... Me either, but the ladies at Rise mentioned it today. Apparently, there’s a whole bunch of makeup out there designed to enhance brown eyes, green eyes, all different eye colors. Those makeup combinations are using many of the same principles that we’re talking about here.
Tip: To avoid the jarring bad-Christmas-advertisement possibilities in complementary colors, try using a muted version of one color as the background with a fully saturated hue as the accent. In the flyer below, a local gym uses their brand colors (which happen to be complementary) in a way that draws attention without being jarring. Notice that the purple wheels in the background are a much lighter tint of the fully saturated purple used to accent the main ideas on the ad.
Allowing more variety than a complementary palette, split-complementary uses one color and the two colors adjacent to its complement colors. This provides for high contrast without the strong tension inherent in a strict complementary scheme.
Tip: If certain palettes seem too bright, you can always tone it down by choosing a dominant hue and then varying the two other colors in saturation and/or value. This will give you many choices to mix and match, as demonstrated below. Variety, in addition to being the spice of life, means that you will be able to rotate your business colors subtly, enabling you to change your look across mediums and over time while still remaining in your branded color realm.
Monotone (sometimes called Achromatic)
A monotone scheme is made up of a single neutral color. Including grays, beiges, off-whites, and taupes, monotone palettes tend to suggest a classic understated look.
Tip: A common trap for monotone palettes is that the color choices can be so subtle that it is difficult to see the differences. If you want that classic look, just be sure there’s enough contrast so that your message is clear. The added bonus of only using one color will be reflected in less expensive printing costs. In the following car advertisement, there is plenty of contrast, making images and text easy to recognize and digest while the overall look and feel suggests a solid, classic product that is well-built and can stand the test of time.
When someone talks about using a monochromatic palette what they mean is the use of one color family in various values or saturations (See? I told you those terms would be important! ;)). These color arrangements are highly effective in implying subtle nuance. In addition to saving money at the printer, monochromes are also a great way to use your company’s primary branded color in flyers and brochures in a subtle way, increasing brand recognition.
Tip: As with monotones, monochromes can sometimes be so subtle as to be ineffective. If this is the case, feel free to add a muted complementary color in small doses as an accent. In the event flyer below you can see how one single color can be used to great effect.
When referring to analogous color schemes, these are neighboring families of color on the wheel. It is important to note that as long as the combination of colors only spans one-fourth of the color wheel, they will be harmonious. The reason is that colors close to each other share the same undertones, allowing for the ease of monochrome with much greater richness.
Tip: If you find your analogous palette looks a little too harmonious (re: boring), try expanding the color group by adding hints of another neighboring color on the wheel. That accent should add just enough oomph and attention without being gaudy.
Now that we’ve answered the “why” questions about color matching and selection of palettes, the next question is, “What next?”
There are some people who have a natural sense of what colors go well together and garner a specific effect. Those people are usually the folks who grow up to be designers, fashion innovators, and stylists. There are still a ton of people outside of that world who could use a little help in the color matching realm.
As a designer by nature, I know I’d prefer that my clients always put color decisions in my hand but let’s be honest here. In these times it’s not always practical or affordable to hire a designer to make all of the small choices in life whether it’s for business cards, a website, or an office paint job overhaul.
When you have to go it alone or at least without your designer in tow, feel free to take these final tips with you.
Once you’ve selected your primary starting color (which could be a whole other blog post in itself though often it will be your main brand or logo color), try looking at the schemes we mentioned here to gain inspiration for a second color choice. Then try the same for your third, then your fourth (if you intend to use that many colors, which is fine).
After you have a palette constructed, show it to folks. Have your assistant take a look at it, your team, the barista at your local coffee shop. See how they react and whether or not it matches the reaction you were going for.
The more you do this, the more it will start to feel intuitive for you and the better you’ll be at finding what’s pleasing for you and what speaks to the audience you’re designing for.
So, COLOURlovers, do you have any success stories in color choices for your business - or horror stories, those are fun, too? Let us know. Post a picture, share a story. I look forward to hearing it.