5 Secrets to Using Color in Design

Col­or the­o­ry can be an incred­i­bly inter­est­ing and pow­er­ful way to enhance your mes­sage. This will be part of an ongo­ing series of posts, so keep check­ing as we share more. To help you get start­ed, here are 5 killer secrets to work­ing with col­or that will help you make bet­ter choic­es when select­ing col­or. It’s like a lit­tle cheat-sheet — make sure to book­mark this page to keep it handy!

Col­or has the pow­er­ful abil­i­ty to make us aware of what we see and feel. It can inspire awe, peace, or even make you hun­gry!  Our per­cep­tion of a col­or can be affect­ed by their hue (iden­ti­fied by the name of the col­or), its inten­si­ty, and how it inter­acts with its sur­round­ing ele­ments. Col­or is explained both sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly — from how your brain process­es the infor­ma­tion, to how our reac­tion to col­or is influ­enced by our cul­ture, expe­ri­ences and preferences.

1. Color is a critical aspect of any design. As a matter of fact, that is the FIRST thing our eyes see.

We must remem­ber that our choic­es can enhance or affect how the col­or inter­acts with the ele­ments of design. Avoid using so many col­ors as it can dis­rupt the visu­al flow — your eyes won’t be able to trav­el across you mes­sage if you have a rain­bow of col­ors all over the place.

The exam­ple below has too much col­or. The back­ground could work on some instances but the col­or­ful type on top of that makes  your eyes feel over­loaded with col­or. You expe­ri­ence a rain­bow of emo­tions and not in a pos­i­tive way. You just sim­ply end up con­fused about where to look. BOOM — that’s what your eyes expe­ri­ence when look­ing at the image below.

2. The medium in which you use color can affect the way it’s perceived.

You may be in love with how a cer­tain col­or looks on the screen, but when you see the print­ed ver­sion it can look a lit­tle — or a lot — dif­fer­ent. There are ways to work with lessen if not solve that.

There are three main col­or num­ber­ing sys­tems: Pan­tone Num­bers (PMS) and CMYK val­ues for print, HEX and RGB val­ues for the web. There are oth­er sys­tems that are used in the sci­ence and indus­tri­al world but for our pur­pos­es, we’ll stick with the main ones.

If you haven’t heard about PMS col­ors, they are spe­cif­ic col­or val­ues that are used to get an exact col­or match. This ensures that the col­or for all uses across the board remains con­sis­tent with the orig­i­nal design. PMS col­ors in print are also referred to as spot col­ors. Using them — say you want to use 5 PMS col­ors —can turn out to be very expen­sive as a result.

The col­or mod­el CMYK – or four col­or print­ing – refers to the four inks used in vary­ing per­cent­ages to cre­ate all col­ors. They are typ­i­cal­ly applied in the order of the let­ters: cyan, magen­ta, yel­low, and key (black). CMYK is great for print­ing and the most cost effective.

HEX and RGB are ways of cod­ing col­ors to be read by var­i­ous com­put­er lan­guages such as HTML, so it will trans­late your design col­or val­ues accu­rate­ly as viewed on the web. RGB lit­er­al­ly stands for red-green-blue… and those three pri­ma­ry col­ors, vari­ably added togeth­er cre­ate most oth­er col­ors. Each HEX and RGB val­ue is assigned a six-dig­it code that indi­cates how much red, green and blue should be ren­dered to cre­ate a spe­cif­ic output.

The whole world, as we expe­ri­ence it visu­al­ly, comes to us through the mys­tic realm of col­or. Our entire being is nour­ished by it. This mys­tic qual­i­ty of col­or should like­wise find expres­sion in a work of art.”

So remem­ber: If you are using an office print­er to review some­thing from the screen, you won’t get an exact col­or match. And, it will look dif­fer­ent from an ink jet vs. a laser print­er. You can try cal­i­brat­ing your print­er to get a slight­ly more accu­rate read­ing. It won’t solve the issue, but it can help. Some print­ers will have an option to print a ref­er­ence col­or chart that includes the CMYK values.

If you are only plan­ning to use CMYK and RGB val­ues, check out this fan­tas­tic tool from Adobe Kuler.

3. When working with similar colors be cautious, as they can blend together and cause your work to look muddy.

A way to test if your col­ors blend is to squint your eyes as you look at them from a dis­tance. These col­ors will look like they turned grey. If they seem to be the same val­ue, you may want to con­sid­er select­ing anoth­er col­or that will have a bet­ter con­trast. Don’t be dis­cour­aged at the idea — It can be well worth the effort to do that exper­i­ment to solve this.

4. Understand that there are psychological and cultural factors that can influence how color is perceived.

Don’t under­es­ti­mate this! If you are try­ing to tar­get a par­tic­u­lar mar­ket, doing research will help you under­stand what col­ors will work and what won’t. Let’s say you are cre­at­ing a cat­a­log that fea­tures beau­ti­ful brides from dif­fer­ent cul­tures. Your mes­sage is talk­ing about brides being hap­py in their beau­ti­ful white gowns, and you include an Indi­an bride wear­ing white. This ref­er­ence would cre­ate a cul­tur­al clash because in India it is believed that a bride wear­ing white will invite sor­row. While the brides may have been born and raised in the USA, many will stick to their tra­di­tion­al wed­ding cus­toms. Con­sid­er this aspect a pro­fes­sion­al skill to devel­op, as impor­tant as the oth­ers you have honed.

5.  Establish harmony.

Using col­ors that incor­po­rate hue rep­e­ti­tion can cre­ate uni­ty in a design. You can estab­lish this by either repeat­ing the col­ors with­in the design or by adjust­ing the val­ue of the par­ent col­or — pink may look dif­fer­ent to a red, but it is still a shade of red.

Col­or is every­where. If you are feel­ing stuck on how to cre­ate har­mo­ny, the best source of inspi­ra­tion is found in nature! There is a rea­son why you feel this amaz­ing sense of awe when you see such amaz­ing col­ors on a sun­set! God was an artist!

Work­ing with col­ors can be tricky but it’s so much fun! Don’t be afraid to let your cre­ativ­i­ty thrive and take risks when you’re in the cre­ation stage. Some very hap­py acci­dents can hap­pen! We’ve got more to say on this top­ic, so come back to read more on col­or on our blog.

About the Author

Nicte Cuevas, Principal of Nicte Creative Design, empowers mission-driven businesses through strategic design & branding. Nicte has applied this when working with Adobe Spark and Twitter Business, LinkedIn Learning, Dogs on Deployment and Purina, Girl Scouts, The Houston Zoo and The Contemporary Arts Museum. Her excellence in communication design & marketing has been recognized by multiple national / international awards, including a coveted feature in Graphic Design USA's People to Watch.

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  1. Love all these points; espe­cial­ly num­ber 4. Too often, peo­ple for­get the dif­fer­ent type of impact one sin­gle col­or (or action!) can have on some­one of a dif­fer­ent culture.

    1. I’m glad these res­onat­ed with you, Andrea! Yes, cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences are so impor­tant in our col­or deci­sions. Togeth­er, we can help oth­ers become aware of the impact these can create.

  2. Great read! I love the point in num­ber 4 as well. This is such an impor­tant thing for wed­ding mar­keters to think of espe­cial­ly — but so often peo­ple get caught up in the beau­ti­ful white (or off white) gowns with the tall thin brides. Brides love to see not only the super glam­orous but the real wed­dings with peo­ple they could be “friend’ with.

    1. Thank you, Alli­son! It’s so inter­est­ing how you cap­tured the impor­tance of col­or for wed­ding mar­keters. You raised a valu­able point on how so many are caught in a par­tic­u­lar “tra­di­tion” with­out con­sid­er­ing their client or tai­lor­ing the expe­ri­ence to them, not society.

  3. Secret # 2 and #5. I was not aware that col­ors can dif­fer from medi­um to medi­um — this was great learn­ing for me, thanks a lot, Nicte. Also the info on col­or har­mo­ny and uni­ty in design was very useful.

    1. Melanie, I’m glad that you found these help­ful! #2 tends to be a chal­lenge for design­ers, even when we have the tools to help us match the col­ors across medi­ums. Col­ors can even look dif­fer­ent from your com­put­er mon­i­tor to your phone. I will have more posts about col­or that can help your busi­ness, so stay tuned.

  4. Nicte,
    What a well writ­ten and infor­ma­tive arti­cle on col­or! Lots of real­ly good nuggets and reminders. Love that you quot­ed Hans Hoff­man — an amaz­ing artist and col­orist! Thanks for shar­ing your exper­tise with us. 🙂

  5. It’s such a good idea to keep in mind how peo­ple are influ­enced to per­ceive col­or based on their cul­tur­al influ­ences — their her­itage, what they grew up with, where they grew up etc… It’s not just the stan­dards that have been dis­cov­ered that gen­er­al­ly speak to most human beings, like that we, on the whole, are calmed by blues and greens (why hos­pi­tal rooms get paint­ed those col­ors). This is real­ly help­ful for me to remem­ber when doing work.

    1. Hi Sue! I’m glad this will help you when you do you work. And yes, there is a rea­son why hos­pi­tal rooms get paint­ed cer­tain col­ors. Col­or is a mood enhancer and I absolute­ly love it.

  6. All of these are so help­ful! I real­ly like #3, 4, and 5 though! I always wor­ry about mud­dy­ing up col­ors, but the idea behind the psychology/cultural aspects of the col­ors is so impor­tant. Some­times I for­get that! Won­der­ful post and thank you 🙂

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