Ask a Designer: How do you create a color palette?
After spending our lifetimes studying color, whether through preschool coloring books or college art class, I’m betting we all have a pretty good understanding of what color is, from the ubiquitous ROYGBIV to secondary hues like fuschia or the (rather devilish) cerulean blue. Our world is infused with color both natural and artificial, and it influences how we go about our lives more than we realize.
When you look at something, your brain interprets the information in a specific sequence. Visual perception is key: the brain reads color after it registers a shape, but before it reads words. This means that color is pretty important for classification and comprehension, so we are wired to understand it. Color also evokes emotions, stimulates associations, and creates differentiation or unity. Naturally, these components are vital to brands, as they aim to attract consumers before and after purchase.
As one of the first and most lasting impressions a brand makes, colors are crucial and aren’t chosen arbitrarily. They also don’t exist in a vacuum, so the process of choosing a color palette is complex and rigorous. A brand’s palette is one of the most essential components of its identity. We don’t need to read the logo on the iconic red can to know it’s a Coca Cola, or the label on the shelf to recognize the blue packaging of the drool-inducing OREO. Instead we intuit; we know the brand because we see their colors.
This past week, I got to sit down with our designers to talk shop about color and how they go about actually choosing a color palette.
Here’s what I learned:
- A designer’s environment influences their work. This makes perfect sense, but I hadn’t thought about it before. Our design team prefers white or neutral spaces mostly devoid of bold color. A blank canvas sort of idea — in a neutral space your mind has the freedom to create and focus on the project at hand without being influenced by the environment around you.
- Focus on who your audience is. Color strongly influences purchase decisions and affects how you see the brand. It can evoke specific emotions, can differentiate from competitors — and needs to appeal to the brand’s audience to do so.
- Know where and how the colors will live. Color is one of a number of elements that you experience when looking at a brand. It is context-dependent, so keep in mind what media and space you are designing for.
- Limitations help establish the creative territory. By focusing on the brand’s purpose, position, and tone of voice, you inherently create categories of colors that work and ones that don’t. This helps to define what colors do and do not embody the brand. By narrowing your choices, you actually open your creative options. Also keep limitations in mind when considering how the color palette will be used across spaces and media. Could certain colors clash or look overwhelming in a label but be excellent for the website?
- Above all, there really is no formal process. That said, there are some common ways different designers approach the task, and most designers develop their own preferred “process.” Most interestingly, it is often not the end goal (a.k.a the color palette) that dictates their process, but rather the specificities of the business in question that inform it. The team was unanimous on one thing: the importance of asking the right questions from the beginning. For example…
- Is the color aligned with the brand’s identity?
- Will the color communicate the same values as the company’s purpose?
- Which colors evoke which feelings?
- Is the color appropriate to the type of business? If not, is it intentionally/interestingly inappropriate?
- Will photography be an important component? If so, photography should be developed in tandem with the color palette.
- What is the brand trying to achieve? How and why are they trying to differentiate?
Choosing brand colors is clearly not as simple as just picking your childhood favorite or spinning the wheel and pointing your finger. Not only are the meanings behind colors complex and highly nuanced, but the process of determining them is intricate and almost always iterative. A color palette is a central design element of any brand, and in many ways a ‘make it or break it’ one.
My biggest takeaway is this: leave it to the experts and call a designer!