If you’ve been keeping up with my “Design Secrets” series, you might imagine my lapse in revealing even more secrets of the graphic design world is due to my being warned off by the enigmatic Alliance of Designers. The Alliance still hasn’t visited me, which now proves they were merely a device I invented to heighten the suspense of these articles. Since the secrets of great graphic design aren’t held sacred by this imaginary cabal of sleight-of-mouse masters, it’s time I shared a few basic tricks of the trade that can help improve your designs dramatically. By the end of this article, you’ll be saying, “Watch as I pull a professionally designed brochure out of my hat! Voila!” If you live in New Orleans and still don’t own a nice hat, go get one now.
Why Am I So Hungry??
One of the first decisions in any design project is picking an appropriate color palette. The colors you pick influence the mood of your brand and evoke emotion in your customers. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at color basics along with a few personal tips and tricks you can use to make your next design work like magic.
Let’s start with the cooler colors—blues, purples, greens, and everything in between. These colors are known to evoke calm. Think blue skies, emerald water, grassy plains, regal flowers. Psychologically, this color palette comes across as being trusted, conservative, dependable, and secure. You will commonly see blue in the logos of corporations that have grown too large to offer anything personal except their tried and true appropriately colored mark (think AT&T, GE, American Express, The Gap).
If your own corporate client comes calling, it’s safe to pair blue with natural greys or washes of the main hue. These washes can veer into grays, taupes or tans if needed. If the client asks for more “pop,” add a bright accent of orange, lime green or yellow. The homepage for the Waters Organization (a website contracted to me through Bella Web Design in Atlanta) is a great example of a corporate design featuring a splash of color.
On the opposite end of the color spectrum are the warm, exciting colors—reds, oranges, and yellows. These colors evoke passion, the sun, excitement, hunger, movement. Psychologically, the color red is known to raise your blood pressure, heightening your metabolism, ultimately making you hungry. This is why red is used frequently in restaurant branding (think McDonald’s, Wendys, Pizza Hut). I am careful when designing with warm colors—if the palette goes too red you risk losing your visitors to the nearest fast food joint. Mix bright, warm colors with dark greys or keep it classic with white or black as a counterbalance. While I didn’t design the logo for The Monson Firm, the branding I designed centers around tons of white space to counter the spicy imagery. You can see this in play on the brochure design below.
On the web, avoid large areas of bright red or yellow—they cause eye strain, especially if you overlay large areas of white or black text. Want to guarantee your expensive web copy doesn’t get read? Use this approach. Using a wash or tint of these colors works sometimes, but you have to make sure the new, lighter color is still in the desired color palette. One trick I use is to pull the wash all the way to grey, letting in just enough of the primary color to give the grey some excitement. I’ll adjust the balance until I feel the grey plays nicely with the brighter colors.
If I am creating a logo and branding package from scratch, I have a few tools I use to apply creative color palettes. Typically the client has colors in mind, so I work to match their request across digital and print, toning down any bright colors just a tad by reducing the overall saturation. If the client doesn’t have input, I’ll use their intended message to determine an emotional direction to go in. For example, I had free reign in designing the Bohemian Spirit logo for my good friend Terrina Cook. Her jewelry designs feature a natural color palette intermingled with bright, natural stones, and I wanted the logo to blend in with these elements while maintaining a bit of excitement. I chose maroon and navy blue, two muted colors that gave just enough excitement to the design while not overpowering her beautiful, natural jewelry.
Another trick is a color palette builder such as the one at https://color.adobe.com. Under the “Explore” tab, type “orange and blue” in the search field and the site will present a multitude of five-color swatch options. From there you can tweak the swatches to create your own unique color palette. Once you have your colors, look for photos that match the palette, and use similarly colored textures as background elements. Another cool feature of this site is the ability to have a color palette generated from an uploaded image.
My Secret Ingredients
I typically don’t use more than three colors in any design: Two from the logo or branding, one accent color. I also don’t like large swaths of loud colors on websites. Your visitor’s eyes are already strained enough from looking at screens all day, so your website should be as easy on the eye as possible. If there is a loud color in the branding or logo, one trick is to use this color only as a delicate design element. Another trick to soften up the feel of a bright color palette is to use images that have the same colors, but with nature elements. Using The Monson Firm brochure again as an example, the piece is bright and crisp, but the organic, natural imagery combines with lots of white space to balance out the design.
Look! Upon Your Page! It’s A Bird! It’s A Plane! It’s Eye Strain!
Sky blue and brown are a great combination, but part of a trend that ended a few years back. If you choose a trendy palette, use the trend with intention, or spice it up a bit—with sky blue and brown, try adding a pure cyan, or a rich, dark brown to add originality.
Orange and blue are a timeless combination and one I never tire of. This combo is always exciting, as seen in the Quantum Tech Solutions logo (contracted through Bella Web Design).
One combination you should almost always avoid is bright red and bright blue. These colors will visually vibrate next to each other and are known eye-strain offenders. Comic books can get away with this combination (think Superman!), but for a typical small business, these colors will be too distracting, even if your employee uniforms are all spandex.
The Secret Recipe
Let’s wrap it up in case the Alliance is real and decides this is the day they come for my legs.
• Base your palette on a logo if available, emotion if not
• Make sure your color palette evokes appropriate emotion for the piece
• Use cool colors for calm; warm colors for excitement
• Keep website colors neutral to avoid eye strain
• Stick to three colors for any design
• Avoid large areas of bright colors on the web
• Use classic color combinations accordingly, and with originality
• Avoid bright red and blue together unless advertising to superheroes
I hope I’ve inspired you to try something new for your next design. Did you find this article helpful? Email me an inspired design, I’d love to see how you put this magic recipe into effect.
In the next installment, I’ll take the mystery out of color and file formats, explaining when to use RGB or CMYK, and when to use JPEG, PNG, EPS, PDF, and other common file formats.