#48: 5 Secrets to Choosing Colors

So what’s so important about color choices? I mean, the trends change so regularly with Pantone releasing new color reports twice a year and choosing a special color to represent every year. So why can’t we just choose colors for our projects based on how we feel about them or based on the trends? Well, if all you ever do is design by feelings then you are doing it all wrong.

We are not fine artists, we don’t have the freedom (generally speaking) to do whatever we want or whatever feels good. Honestly I’m kind of glad about this. I like that there ‘s some boundaries around what I am asked/expected to do. It takes a lot of talent to do fine art, but honestly, you have to use a lot more logic to do graphic design. Because we are required to think critically about the choices we make, we are more aware of the direction we are going and I love that. We don’t have the ability in most cases to say, “I chose red for this poster’s primary color because it ‘just felt good”. While this may be true and we definitely become more intuitive about what we’re all doing when we’ve been in the field long enough, it’s not the norm.
Sometimes it “feels good” because we know it’s right because of our experiences with color and its effect on people.
Choosing colors for logos and designs in general is not easy, I understand that.But I’ve become more and more aware that color theory is not really in the realm of priorities for many designers.
Honestly, sometimes the color choices many designers make look like they opened up the Pantone Color Books Swatches panel and just scrolled down and randomly clicked on something.
They play color Russian roulette; this never works out well. I have also found that even when designers try to think really hard on their own about what color direction they will take that they get frustrated when I question their decision because they felt like they make good color choices. When I’m teaching my students about color theory and color psychology I try to explain that everything in graphic design that you will make will come with a “why“, including color choices. Now depending on your client, sometimes the color choices are not as specific but the thing to remember is that every color choice you make is impactful in some way. So because this is not something that is always easy to do, I want to give you 5 easy tools to use when you start down the color-choosing path.


The two most client factors are preferences and background. The first one to get out of the way is your client preferences. Primarily the clients’ aversions to certain colors. You don’t want to create something that is a color your client does not want or something they don’t feel represents them. If say they hate the ONLY color that is appropriate for their product or brand or service, then it is our job to convince them why certain color is better and really sell it to them.
Although we’re the experts, it is important to trust the insight that our client might have into who they believe they are as well as colors they may know that their target audience is averse to or attracted to.
Background is the next one. Background can require quite a bit of research time and effort to discover. Background is figuring out who the company or client is and taking into so consideration their history. The history of a company can be really useful to the design, especially if it is a branding project. Insight into the background of the person or company can also really lend to some  cool design solutions. The history of who the client is will make what you are doing for them exceptionally unique because every brand story is different, just like every person is different. These differences can be really crucial to a design, campaign or brand identity as it can set them apart from the competition.


Next, it’s really important to look at the competition. But who is the competition and why does what they’re doing matter? Well, depending on what you are designing, the competition is a really interesting piece of this puzzle.
Looking at the competition will  achieve a couple of things: it will give you an idea of common color threads that run through the other companies (whether they’re using correct colors or not), as well as show you what kind of direction to avoid to ensure the you don’t create something identical.
Researching the competition is the best way to avoid unintentional plagiarism. No one wants to create something and then find out later that what they have already exists and they had no idea.
Another way competition matters is in relation to audience attention-getting. Consider if you are making a gig poster to promote an upcoming concert. Often posters will be displayed among upwards of 20+ other shows at a venue. They are all plastered together on a wall like wallpaper. If you want yours to stand out you have to consider what the other posters look like and try to do something representative of the show you are designing for, while also being original. Or what if you have a construction company, your logo will potentially be on your work truck or a sign on the property you are building on. You never want to be mistaken for another company who also builds homes, you want to be distinctive. Whether you are designing packaging, or a poster, or logo, considering what the competition is doing will help in your color choices and set you and your client apart.


This is probably The most powerful element along your color choosing journey; it’s also the most fun. Doing research on how colors effect people is really intriguing. This is where we get to combine the power of our visuals with colors that will really enhance our message. Learning how a certain color effects the actual physical response of the viewer is really powerful.
Much like a Van Gogh painting can stir up emotions in someone looking at them, our advertisements, posters, packaging, and yes, even logos, have the potential to do the same. That should excite you.
We have to remember the power we have with every single thing we make and put out in front of the public eye. Something that is important is that often we choose colors instinctively and can choose relatively close to what color might be best. Have you ever wondered why that is? Or do you just think, “Man, I am awesome, choosing colors is easy”. Well, I hate to break it to you, but the fact that you can choose colors instinctively has a LOT to do with the psychology of color and how you have been conditioned to think about certain colors and color schemes or combinations. Some of these things are cultural and some are natural, but conditioned all the same.
The research comes in because your experiences with a certain color could be completely different from the experience of someone in your target audience.
But there are some psychological generalities that are crucial to your understanding of color and the response you hope to get to your choices in your designs. Especially when you are designing for an international audience perhaps or even for a client outside of the Red White & Blue, you could actually really mess something up in the messaging if you don’t understand the psychology of those colors in that culture.


Cultural considerations aren’t just something that happen outside of the US though. That’s the crazy thing about our country is that we have such a mixed bag of cultural influences. So remembering to take this into the color planning could really make or break your design. If you are from Colorado and are designs for a client in Miami, you are going to have to consider that the primary audiences there could be heavily Puerto Rican or Puerto Rican-American. Think about how this could effect a potential miscommunication of your message.
In our business, our primary roles as designers is communication. If we have something amazing to say but then choose the wrong color to compliment our message, we fail and can potentially lose lots of money for our clients.
Learning about the culture is part of the research on the target audience but you also need to research the culture of the business you are representing so that you don’t come off to the audience as disingenuous or fake. You can reach out to unique cultures by staying true to the culture of the client while at the same time investing time into learning about what colors are unique or impactful to the audience you are trying to reach. I hate to use the term “sell to” because even if you are trying to sell a product or service  you first have to communicate with them that what you have to offer is useful and show them how it will make their life better in some way. People want to be a better version of themselves and it’s our job to show them how what we have to offer will help them reach that better version-even if it is seems superficial. Research will show an authenticity and reliability.

The final step to consider is your audience. The audience has the power to change your entire direction. If the current market trend is using orange but your focus groups or research into the target yield results that say orange is actually off-putting then the color strategy has to change. Or if you discover that you have been thinking that your target audience was one thing all along, and once more research was conducted you realized that the audience had shifted, this will also effect your color choices. Children ages 2-6 prefer different colors than children 7-10 do.
Knowing your audience can be a game changer.
Now this isn’t something you will always be able to discover depending on who your client is. It could be a logo for a restaurant or a poster for a play, in which case the target audience may be a wide range. In this case, you want to revert to the messaging of who your client is and communicating color in that way. You may also be limited by a lack of information availability and this is where your ability to problem solve comes in, you could find a similar company and see if you can identify their target research and use it for yourself. Research into all these areas is the absolute KEY.

So whether you are designing a poster or a branding package, I strongly urge you to keep this list nearby and try to consider each of these 5 things as you go trough your process. People may not know or understand, about all the effort you put into carefully choosing the colors for their design, but you will know that you did your very best design to communicate the message to the people who need to see it. And once you’ve taken these steps and considered them all when choosing your colors you will be able to back up so many of your choices and show that you are the expert and they will trust you.
Don’t ever do the bare minimum, be the exception to the rule when everyone else is just doing what they do — working the lazy way. Do it the right way and you will always be one step ahead and your work will eventually be recognized for having much more value. Design is a wonderful world, I hope you’ll join me here (every week) because design matters.

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