A Color Story: A Guide to Building Color Palettes

Julie Johnson here, Social Stylate’s Graphic Designer. This month I’m taking a break from spinning scary tales of online advertising click trackers in favor of some good old-fashioned color theory. When I approach a project one of my first three questions will be about color. Color selection gives your piece its identity. Naturally, when the question of palette comes up, the response is often emotion based. We tend to know “what” we want our colors to say. Over my career I’ve had plenty of these exchanges:

Designer: Do you have a color palette in mind?

Client: Something punchy! Va va voom! Like, pow! You know?

I’ll never hold it against a client for coming to a graphic design project meeting without a composed palette. After all, as a designer, that’s what I’m here for! Whether it be a logo, an event poster, a pamphlet, a business card, or a website, our color choices give projects their personality. I’m here to help bridge the gap between “what” we want our colors to say and “how” to get them to say it! Here’s a basic guide to working a color palette for your piece:

Step 1: Get emotional – define the “what”

Define that vibe! In the exchange above, the Client is well on their way. Most folks know intrinsically “what” they want their piece to say. If you’re not sure, write down a list of words to describe your event/piece/business that the piece is for (e.g. cheerful, holiday, joy, comfort, warm, cozy, family).

Step 2: Choose your hues based on the “what”

Take that “what” and assign some color hues to it. Was your “what” energetic and exciting? Let’s do warm colors like reds, oranges, and yellows! Were you going for something serene and relaxed? Go for greens and blues! You don’t have to be specific at this stage – focus on hue, that is, simply the base color. We will get into tones in a bit.

Step 3: Apply some theory

Now that you have some hues picked out, refine them by applying some theory! You may be wondering “do these hues work well together?” Good news! Someone has already done that work for you! You can decide to create an analogous palette (colors that are adjacent on the color wheel), complementary (opposite sides of the color wheel), or another configuration. There are many possible configurations in color theory (we’re sticking with simple here), and they will help take the guesswork out of color harmonizing. Get started with the examples below:

Step 4: Tone it up (or down)!

Now that you’ve finalized your base hues and configuration, go back to those “what” items you defined in step one to inform your tones, shades, and tints. This is a fancy way of saying adding white, black, or gray to your existing hues. Keeping it bright? Maybe you don’t need to add any neutrals to your hues at all! Want to soften things up? Tint it up by adding some white to the hues to get a pastel palette. To go for something deeper and moodier, add in a little shade with black. If you want to desaturate or “muddy up” your colors a bit, add gray. Keep it uniform though!

Keep in mind that this is a simplified, high-level guide to get you started. We could fill a book on color theory and palettes (and plenty of talented individuals have!). Hopefully, these steps will give you some confidence to approach your next project!

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