Oh my, how I love colors!
I am so excited to share this post with you all. It’s going to be really, really hard to keep it to the point and not geek out about all the things I love about color theory and psychology.
If you have a business, then you’re using color. Whether you have a brand (or even a logo) or not, you’re communicating who you are through color—even if it’s just in your profile picture.
Color is the visual element that we register first: before words are read, subjects in images are distinguished, thoughts are formed.
If your audience takes only milliseconds to form an impression about you from your whole branding—then how much more quickly will they form an impression from your colors?
Read through these tips on how to use colors in your branding like a pro so you can feel confident that you’re using the right colors to win over your audience!
Warm Colors vs Cool Colors
I think if there is one thing I’d want you to take away from this post, it would be learning the difference between warm and cool colors.
Warm colors have a yellow undertone. Typically they are your yellows, oranges, warm reds, browns, etc; but they can also include colors like coral and olive green.
Cool colors have a blue undertone. Common cool colors are blues, cool greens, cool reds, magentas, black, and white; purple, sage green, and pink are a few lesser-known cool colors.
What’s important to remember is that what makes a color warm or cool is not the color itself, but rather the particular hue of it. It’s false to say, “Red is a warm color”—those of use who have struggled to find the perfect shade of a red lipstick will tell you that a shade of red can have either a warm undertone or a cool one.
Tints and Shades
Knowing tints and shades will be so helpful as you choose a color palette for your branding.
Partially because if you’re lazy like me, adding a tint and a shade of a particular hue is an easy way to fill out your color palette. *no shame*
Okay...but seriously (though I wasn’t kidding, that’s totally true), you can use tints and hues to improve legibility of your colors in desperate situations (though I would do this very, very sparingly, if at all—too much of this could look like inconsistency in your color palette).
Tints are lighter variations of a color (usually more white has been added).
Shades are darker variations of a color (usually more black has been added).
There are actually many more color schemes than these shared below, but these are the biggest three that I reference most. The others are a bit more complicated, and I highly recommend reading up on those; but to keep it simple, here are the big ones.
Analogous: An analogous color scheme is one made up of colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel. If you look at my color palette (scroll down if you need a refresher), I actually camp out in the analogous zone quite a bit with my navy, sage green, and light blue.
Complementary: Complementary colors are those directly opposite one another on the color wheel. Like eating some sweet chocolate ice cream after finishing a bowl of salty popcorn (or is that just me? I eat a lot), complementary colors are known to be the most pleasing combinations because they, well, complement one another! When I use complementary colors in a palette, I usually make one a soft tint and the other a stronger shade, since the pure hues in themselves tend to vibrate against one another (see below).
Triadic: A triadic color scheme consists of colors that are evenly spaced out around the color wheel. This color scheme brings some balance and variety to your palette and is also a powerful combiner of hues.
Oooh, this is where it gets fun!
As mentioned in the intro, colors speak. Our minds register colors—mainly through cultural training, but also a bit of primal response—and interpret them to mean certain things: even if the words on top of them say something else.
This is why using the right color is so important!
As just mentioned, the way different cultures interpret colors is widely varied. For instance, in the West we associate white with purity and weddings, while in Asia (for example) white is associated with death.
Since most of my readers and clients are Western, I’ve created this color psychology cheat sheet for those cultural interpretations—but this is where knowing your audience is important. If your audience is primarily an Eastern culture (or even Latin/South American), you should research how those societies interpret colors as it may be very different!
Color Mistakes to Avoid
Now that we’ve made it past the #basics, let’s dive into how to use colors in your branding like a pro!
Avoid: Vibrating Colors
Yikes, my eyes hurt just looking at this!
As shown in the example on the left, vibrating colors (or vibration) is when two colors are both such intense hues and are used adjacent/on top of one another that they seem to visually vibrate against one another. Can you see it?
This causes the eye to be uneasy, not to mention making legibility more difficult.
Just don’t do this, please.
Avoid: Poor Legibility
This is a much more common mistake that gets made (and I’ve made it myself many a time). Poor legibility means that your colors are too close in tint/shade to be seen easily. This happens very commonly with print (it looks easier to see on screen) and is also a caution that must be taken when your target audience is older and may have weaker eyesight.
Be Mindful of Colorblindness
Lastly, be mindful that some of your audience may be colorblind. Mostly this impacts your use of reds and greens—and is more likely to be a factor for men than women—but there are many types of colorblindness, as well as apps to help check for that.
Pro Tips for Swoon-Worthy Color Palettes
Maybe you already knew all of that and are just here for this section. In that case, thanks for sticking around!
While there are many, many tips I could share about use of color, here are the three biggest ones I wanted to leave you with.
Pro Tip #1: My Super-Awesome Color Palette Method
My method for picking a great color palette is to start with one color that I know I’m going to want to use and then picking other colors with the same undertone (either warm or cool)—and then a new color that’s totally opposite as a contrast.
For example: notice in my palette below that the blue, green, and pink are all cool undertones, and then I have a red that’s a warm undertone as an accent:
I also have several neutrals (including the cream background) in my palette, which allows for a lot of flexibility and keeps the palette grounded. Even if your brand image is to be colorful, bold, playful, or whimsical, it’s always a good idea to have plenty of neutrals at your disposal!
Pro Tip #2: Rationalize your color choices.
Since branding is all about strategy and communication, pick colors with intention.
Not just because you like them, and especially not just because “everyone else is using them and I want to fit in”!
Go back to the color psychology and gain a deep understanding of what a color communicates, and use that to inform your decisions.
For example, I recently designed a brand with a bold yellow color (Winter Garden Runners, in case you haven’t seen it yet!). The client had asked to avoid gold—and technically, I didn’t use gold—but as I was developing their brand strategy and considering colors, I became completely convinced that a strong yellow was the absolute best color for their rebrand and knew that I had to propose it, despite their initial misgivings. I explained this rationale when presenting the design—and they were sold!
Pro Tip #3: Be consistent.
If possible, save the RGB/CMYK/hex codes of your color swatches (in any software you’re using to pick colors, there should be a series of codes to identify the exact hue you’re using) so that you’re using the same colors every time you create your own brand graphics. If you’re using Adobe’s Creative Cloud, save them in a CC library! (Here’s how.)
Be diligent to use the same hue every time, rather than “eyeballing it” and guessing. If the color is off, it will look inconsistent and unprofessional—and we’re here to make you a pro at colors!
Lastly, avoid adding additional colors to your palette unless you’re sure they’re going to enhance your brand’s image (or have your brand designer add a few new ones for you).