Non-designer’s guide to color

How to pick brand colours using colour theory

Shade. Tint. Tone.

They’re all familiar terms, but can you remember what each one means?

Beyond refreshing yourself with art class terminology, colour theory helps you pick brand colours that suit your business and make you stand out.

But how much impact do the colours you pick for your business have on brand recognition?

To better understand this, Reboot marketing agency created logos for five fictitious companies and showed them to their study participants. After giving them 10 minutes to study the logos, 78% were able to recall the primary colour of the logo, compared to only 43% who were able to remember the company name.

Learning how to choose and mix colours gives you the confidence and know-how to build a memorable brand.

To kick-off this colour theory refresher, let’s start with an art class classic.

Rediscover the colour theory wheel

Also known as the colour wheel, this is your cheat sheet for choosing colours that work well together. And chances are, you probably also covered it in science class.

Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram in 1666 as part of his research into the behaviour of light. Using a lamp, Newton ran white light through an optical prism to separate it into a rainbow of colours. Scientists had seen the light-through-glass trick before but assumed the lens somehow coloured the light. By reflecting the coloured beams into another glass crystal, Newton reformed them back into white light. This experiment, for the first time, proved that the colours were a characteristic of the light itself.

Newton’s 12-colour wheel consists of:

  • three primary colours (red, yellow, blue)
  • three secondary colours (created when you mix primary colours: green, orange, purple)
  • six tertiary colours (the in-between colours made from primary and secondary colours, like blue-green or red-violet)

Understand warm and cool brand colours

The colour wheel reveals the difference between warm and cool colours.

When you split the wheel in half, one side of the wheel shows warm colours - red, orange, yellow and variations of these three colours. These colours are intense, energetic, and vibrant.

On the other side of the wheel are the cool colours – green, blue and violet. These are more subdued and convey a sense of calm and tranquility.

Typical associations with colour are an essential consideration when choosing colours for your brand. Colour can have a profound effect on what people feel about a brand when seen for the first time.

Cool colours

Want to instill a sense of trust in your business through your brand colours?

Blue is generally associated with competence and trustworthiness. So, a blue colour scheme or accent could be an appropriate choice for businesses as diverse as financial institutions and child or pet care. Basically, any business that needs to look reliable and secure.

People associate green with nature, environmental consciousness, and sustainability. Greens are also linked to spring and rebirth, making them a good option if you offer health, wellness or education services.

Warm colours

On the other hand, warm colours like red can be used to imply passion or strength. Red also stimulates appetite and attracts attention. This active reaction is often used by brands to get people’s attention.

Are you running a flash sale to move old stock?

There’s a very good reason that SALE signs often use red. It stands out.

Orange is a good choice if you want to promote child-friendliness, cheerfulness, and optimism. It confidently calls people to action and creates a sense of enthusiasm.

Yellow is another positive colour that’s often used to grab attention. Given its association with sunny weather, it’s a popular choice for business in the travel and tourism sector.

Pick brand colour variations

But beyond the 12 colours on the wheel, what about all the others?

This glossary outlines the variables that create the colour spectrum:

  • Tint: A colour made lighter by adding white.
  • Shade: A colour made darker by adding black.
  • Tone: A colour that is muted by adding grey.
  • Hue: Another word for a colour.

  • Saturation: The intensity of a colour (saturated colours are brighter and more intense).
  • Desaturation: Colours which have less pigment and are more muted.
  • Value: Refers to how light or dark a colour is.
  • Neutral colorus: Black, white and grey.

Combine brand colours

Your brand colour palette will extend across a range of touchpoints with your business. Your logo may only include one or two colours. But, you’ll probably want to employ other colours for your website, shopfront, marketing materials and staff uniforms.

Colour formulas provide a foolproof way of using the 12-part colour wheel to pick perfect colour combinations.

Don’t worry, though; you don’t need to be an algebra expert to get your head around this.

Here are the colour formula essentials to get you started:

  • Monochromatic – Pick one colour from the colour wheel and adjust the saturation and value to create variations of that colour.
  • Analogous – Choose three colours that are side by side on the colour wheel as the basis of your colour scheme. To add variety, play around with the saturation and value.
  • Complementary colours – Choose two colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel. Start with the two opposite colours and then add variety by playing around with the saturation and value.
  • Triadic colours – Choose three colours that are evenly spaced, forming a perfect triangle on the wheel and then add variety by playing around with the saturation and value.

Learn the rules to break the rules

Another thing that no doubt stuck with you from high school: Rules are made to be broken.

Once you’ve learned the basics of colour theory, use the colour formulas above as a starting point for experimentation.

Take inspiration from the world around you. You can find it anywhere. In nature, advertising, fine art – the possibilities are endless. Try to pick inspiring imagery that reflects your brand personality. For example, if you run a mountain bike business, you might look for inspiration in a mountain scene or a sports-related image.

Choose 3-4 colours from that image to compose your colour palette and use these colours consistently across your branding.

Put it all together

Now that you have a few basic techniques for picking brand colours for your business, there are a few things to consider when perfecting your colour palette.

1. Beware of brand colours that vibrate

When you place two colours too similar in value next to each other, they can create a vibrating effect that’s harsh on the eyes and impossible to read.

The solution?

Try adjusting the contrast of the image by toning down the saturation, hue or value.

2. Avoid large areas of light text on dark backgrounds

If you need to include a large amount of text, stay away from light text on a dark background. It’s often too high in contrast and makes it hard for people to read.

3. Pick neutral colours to balance design

Be sure to make use of neutral colorus like white, black, and grey. Surrounding bright colours with neutrals makes your design appear well balanced.

4. Use contrast to make important info pop

Use colour selectively for elements you want to stand out the most – like your logo and company name.

5. Consider how your brand colours make people feel

By understanding the common associations with different colours, you can create a colour scheme that elicits certain feelings, like security and trustworthiness.

6. Look around you for colour inspiration

Whether it’s another business you admire, an image with an attractive blend of colours or a trend you’ve spotted in fashion, you can find colour inspiration anywhere.

7. Refer back to the colour wheel if in doubt

If you don’t feel comfortable borrowing a palette from somewhere else, use the formulas mentioned above to make sure the colours you pick work well together.

Keen to learn more about colour?

We worked with Dr. Sally Augustin of Design with Science to create this common colour association infographic. Sally has extensive experience integrating science-based insights to develop recommendations for the design of places, objects, and services that support desired cognitive, emotional, and physical experiences.

Also, we’d love to see your ideas with colour come to life. Share your practical experiments as you explore colour theory on Instagram using #vistaprint.

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