Five Quick Tricks for Designing with Color

If you have ever wondered how to use color in your designs, you are not alone. Color is a tricky concept to master, especially in the digital era. New and burgeoning designers may feel overwhelmed hearing about CMYK color vs. RGB color, hexidemical color codes, the color wheel, color psychology, hues, tones, shades, saturation, and on and on. But if you want to get started using color in your designs, don’t panic. Follow a few simple rules for using color and you can make your designs look nice.

Quick Trick #1: Use the Color Wheel
Color wheelWhen it comes to determining a good color scheme, winging it doesn’t work very well. Making your colors match is important and the best way to do that is by learning how to use the color wheel. If you are reading this article, there are probably only four kinds of color schemes you need to know for now: analogous, monochromatic, complementary, and triadic. As you look at the color wheel to the left, notice how the colors are divided. If you pick a color square with your finger, the colors immediately touching that color to the left or right are considered analogous; that is, they are very similar. If you pick a square and move toward or away from the center, the color is the same in hue, but different in tint. So, if you want to create a color scheme, you’ll want to keep the same tint of a particular hue and then decide which color scheme you want. A complementary color scheme means you find the color directly opposite on the wheel that is the same tint (yellow and purple, for example, are complementary, as are blue and orange).  A monochromatic color scheme (all the same color but different shades), simply pick a hue and choose the colors that move toward or away from the center. An analogous color scheme picks three or four colors adjacent to each other. And, a triadic color scheme picks three colors that are equidistant from each other (like red, yellow, and blue). 

Quick Trick #2: Don’t Use More than Four Colors
Simple Color in Design
The best designs are almost always simple, both in layout and in color. When you come up with a color scheme (and you need a color scheme!) don’t try to squeeze in more than four colors. If you look at the brochures to the left, you’ll see how the duotone (gray and blue or yellow) is simple, yet elegant. If you are using color photos, try to determine which colors dominate or accent in the photos and match two or three colors in a scheme with it. White doesn’t count as a color, so make good use it. People like white: it looks clean, clear, and it makes other colors really pop out so try to fill in as much white as you can around the other colors.

Quick Trick #3: Know Your Color Psychology
Psychology of ColorBelieve or not, there is a whole field of study (that some researchers spend their entire careers on) about how colors affect us, both physiologically and psychologically. Check out a previous article about the effects of drunk tank pink (a very specific shade of pink that makes people feel calm) for some indication about how researchers have used color to affect mood. The image to the left is an example of a chart designed to describe the various psychological effects of different colors. Clearly, this chart is too small, but you might try going to Google Images and typing in “psychology of color.” You’ll come across a number of charts that describe how colors affect moods. Of course, many colors are tied to cultures and will change outside of the united states, but you should be aware that yellow has a very different emotional and psychological affect than, say, blue. Restaurants almost always have a red color scheme because red makes people feel hungry (and notice that most chain restaurant logos have red and/or yellow in them). Blue makes people feel cold. Purple suggests elegance and green suggests wealth (and fertility in some places!) The colors you choose have an emotional reaction, so use the charts to help you determine what you are going for.

Quick Trick #4: Consider Nature and the Four Seasons
Earth Tone ColorsIf you’re really stuck on what color scheme to do, consider if what you are trying to design (maybe a poster for a concert, a flyer, or a logo for a business) has any connection to a season or nature. Is the event going to be in the spring? Does the company sell natural products? Is the theme of the concert about something outside? If I say “wind,” you probably automatically think blues and grays. If I say “winter,” you likely think of reds, greens, and tinsel-like turquoise. If I say “organic,” you probably think greens and yellows. Thinking about how nature and the four seasons impacts your design can really help you think about colors. Of course, you don’t want to always be cliche, but it’s a good place to start. Also, if you use the “earth tones,” you can be confident that you are using colors that people are comfortable and relaxed with. If you aren’t going for bold, exciting look, and want something calming, traditional, and sophisticated, try sticking with the fall colors–dark greens, oranges, and browns. The Orange County poster above does just that: sticks to dark orange, dark green, and a dingy yellow. And it works well for its purpose!

Quick Trick #5: Make Use of Gray
GrayBrochureDesignGray, similar to white, does not clash with virtually anything in print. Gray is a nice color for text when black seems a bit too stark. Gray also has a real elegant feel to it and can instantly class-up an otherwise traditional design. Don’t make gray so light that it is hard to read on white, but you’ll find if you use a really dark gray it often looks better than straight-up black on white. Grayscale images also have a nice way of making accent colors stand out, so if your business has a color that you want to be memorable, put it next to gray images. If you look at the images to the left, you’ll see how much the orange and yellows stand out against the black-and-white photos.