How to Find the Perfect Color
By John McWade
Dateline: January 15, 2004
Your brochure needs a cover, and you have the right photo. What you need now is the right color. Here’s how to create a palette full.
Here’s the situation. We have an academic schedule for a women’s college to design, and for a photo this straight-at-you, red-haired, freckle-faced model. The goal is to look fresh, alive and personal (no building-and-grounds shots), while conveying a sense that the program is serious and businesslike. A note of trendiness will be good. Color is involved in all of it.
No single visual element has more effect on a viewer than color. Color gets attention, sets a mood, sends a message. Working with color should be fun and it is! But what colors are the right ones? We all have favorites, but personal preferences are unreliably subjective. There’s more science to it than that.
The key is that color is relational. Colors don’t exist in a vacuum, but are always seen together and affect one another. To illustrate how, we’ll start from our photo, find its colors, relate them to others, and when we’re done, we’ll have a coordinated, message-making page. Watch:
1. Select Colors from the Photo
2. Try Each One On
3. Make a Color Palette
Add colors to the colors! Pick any of the colorslet’s use this blueand find its location, or at least its general vicinity, on the color wheel. We’ll call this the base color. We already know that the base color goes with the photo. Our job now is to find colors that go with the base color. Keep in mind that if type or other graphic is involved (pretty typical), you’ll need both dark and light colors for contrast. Possibilities:
First are the dark, medium and light values of the base color. This is a monochromatic palette. It has no color depth, but it provides the contrast of dark, medium and light that’s so important to good design.
One color step either side of the base color are its analogous colors. Analogous colors share undertones (here, blue-green, blue, and blue-violet), which create beautiful, low-contrast harmony. Analogous palettes are rich and always easy to work with.
Directly opposite the base color is its complementin this case, the orange range. What the complement brings is contrast. A color and its complement convey energy, vigor and excitement. Typically, the complement is used in a smaller amount as an accent; a spot of orange on a blue field, for example.
One step either way are the complement’s own analogous colors. This palette is called a split complement. Its strength is in the low-contrast beauty of analogous colors, plus the added punctuation of an opposite color. In this case, the blue would most likely be used as a small accent.
In this case, the blue would most likely be used as a small accent. In every case and always, a color can be represented by any of its values. Dark blue, for example, can be combined with light teal (analogous) or medium orange (complement).
4. Edit and Apply
Set type and lay out the page, and now is time to make real choices. With so many beautiful possibilities, how do you choose? Think message. You’ll find yourself naturally favoring some colors. Don’t jump. Whether working alone or with a group, keep weighing everyone’s preferences against the original purpose, which is, what is this design to say? In this case, the goal is to have a look that’s serious, direct and businesslike, while feeling fresh and even a bit trendy. Do any of the color choices shown here convey those qualities to you better than the others? ALL BUSINESS Mid-range blue is everyone’s favorite color. What’s interesting here is that blue and orange are native to the photo, giving it excellent natural contrast. The blue background swallows her jacket, allowing her intense gaze to lift right off the page. Handsome and businesslikeand most likely to be chosen.
CASUAL Analogous to the bluea step toward greenis teal, a beautiful color not in the photo. Its difference adds depth and vibrancy and relaxes the message somewhat; it’s trendier now, more approachable. Her eyes, which against blue looked blue, now look green. Type color, still light orange, is a soft contrast.
PRETTY One step the other way is blue-violet, another color not in the photo. Blue-violet is a shift toward red; the result is a slightly flatter image, because face, hair and background are now more alike. Blue-violet is a cool color normally associated with softness, femininity, and springtime (with undertones of freshness).
INTENSE The highlights in her hair carry this page; the blue accent lends contrast and depth. An unexpected focal point is the yellow headline, which seems cut out of the photo. Dimensionally flat, this mix is intense and engaging (and would win the design contest), but only a daring client would choose it.
SERIOUS This palette began in the deep red of her hair, and for an accent took two steps toward yellow. Her eyes and jacket, which on blue receded into the background, now stand in contrast. Note that the red in her hair is a mere highlight, but filling the page it acquires real weight. Serious, warm, draws the reader in.
This article is excerpted from Before & After, How to design cool stuff, Issue 31. Copyright ©2004, Before & After magazine, all rights reserved. Design more cool stuff! Visit Before & After magazine online at http://www.bamagazine.com/ to buy the current issue, subscribe, or order back issues, including the one containing this article. Get a free bonus issue when you subscribe in the Graphics.com Member Area.