We could dedicate an entire book to the subject of color—and plenty of people have. As a designer, there’s a lot to learn about using color, from the psychology to the science. Color choices come into play at every level of brand identity. However, perhaps the single most important choice to make about color is at what point in your design process to start making choices about it.
Color brings such an immediate emotional quality to a mark—it can tempt designers into jumping ahead and designing with a particular color in mind. Resist this temptation. Complete your initial design for each new mark without regard to the color(s) it will eventually take on. Because most graphic identities face color limitations depending on the application, you’ll need to ensure that a mark will work in several different colors. And because colors are often influenced by trends, what feels contemporary today may look dated tomorrow.
That said, a color treatment can make or break a graphic identity. Color choices that are too dated, illegible, unsophisticated, etc., can drag down even the most wonderfully drawn mark.
Once you’re ready to consider color for a mark, start with the natural dimensions of color: hue (red vs. blue), saturation (bright blue vs. blue gray), and brightness (light blue vs. dark blue). Revisit the color wheel and think about how complementary colors with the same values play visual tricks. Consider additive color (where every color together makes black) or subtractive color (where every color together makes white). Understand the context of color—how a light shape on a dark field looks smaller than a dark shape on a light field.
As color spreads across an identity program into environments, packaging, websites, and more, consistency and meaning reign supreme.
Strong identity programs use color in a fiercely consistent fashion. Choosing the right color is important—if you end up owning the wrong one, you can drag down a brand—but the importance of consistency in application can’t be overstated. Anything less adds confusion to the emotional spectrum that inspired the color choice in the first place.
As you think about how a base color and its accents tie a program together, remember this: Color communicates at the speed of light. The brain responds to color the same way it responds to pleasure or pain. It’s immediate, primal. Know the cultural connotations of colors before assigning meaning to them within your identity program. Green means “go,” but it can also mean environmentally friendly or the Brazilian national football team.
Clinical and anecdotal tests on color psychology and emotion have led to the development of widely accepted theories about color. That’s why schools and hospitals favor teal paint for interior walls to make people feel calm, while restaurants are more likely to choose red interiors to make people feel hungry. But the power of certain colors changes over time and across cultures.
One cannot deny the influence of fashion industry trends on color choices. Seasonality in fashion markets creates programmed obsolescence: What is the new “black” this season? Color-trend experts try to predict what car colors consumers might want to buy in the future. These color trends cross markets freely and often. A popular lime-green highlight on a Prada bag might find its way into business cards, websites, interiors, or office chairs.
Culture also plays a role in how colors are interpreted. The obvious example: In Western cultures, people wear black to funerals, while in Eastern cultures mourners wear white. The cultural connotations of color are often learned and permeate a market.