When we refer to “adding color” to something – a story, an idea, an outfit, our lives – we usually mean making it more interesting and impactful. To “color” something means to infuse it with energy or emotion, and that’s exactly where we’re at in our brand identity journey. With your story, logo, graphics, images, and fonts locked in to your unique brand board, your color palette will be the final coat of paint that finishes off your brand identity kit – setting you up to create an endless stream of consistent content.
We’re tackling color last because it will be applied across your entire design identity – fonts, graphics, logo, and images. We suggest getting all those stylistic elements in place upfront, and then personalizing them with your brand colors. Think about it this way: It’s likely that somebody in the world will be using the same typeface as you are – but it becomes exponentially less likely that they’ll be using the exact same font in the same color combination you’ve created. Color is where your brand really comes into its own – both aesthetically and energetically.
In this chapter we’re going to dive into color theory and color psychology, with a view to the very practical outcome of creating your brand’s own color palette, and saving it in Over. We’ll also point you to some free resources to help you develop interesting, relevant, and compatible color combinations.
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If there’s any reason to believe in magic in this world, we’d argue that the existence of color might be it. Being as deeply ingrained as it is in human consciousness, we rarely pause to consider its immense power, or its secret language – a non-verbal dialect we all speak fluently.
Color theory and color psychology emerge from primal associations that have been around since the dawn of humanity. Blue, omnipresent in the ocean and the sky, conjures up sensations of tranquility and spaciousness. Green, like forests, jungles, and grasslands after the rain, subconsciously suggests vitality, growth, and affinity with nature, while red and orange are invariably associated with heat, danger, and passion: fire, lava, blood.
In the modern world, where lava and sadly even blue skies are less commonly seen, color is more abundant in our lives than ever before in history. We put it to use as a source of great power, by affecting perception. Artists know it, fashion designers and stylists know it, chefs know it, and now it’s time for your brand to put these secrets to good use. Use your brand colors to tell the story you want to tell.
As much as we can make generalizations like these to use as a starting point, the matter of color psychology is far more complicated, and subjective. For example, research shows that men and women have different preferences: men like blue and dislike brown more than women do, and orange becomes less appealing to both genders as they get older.
Then there are of course diverging cultural associations with color. The French, for instance, regard yellow as the color of jealousy, betrayal, weakness, and contradiction, whereas in Japan it signifies bravery, wealth, and refinement, and has been associated with the chrysanthemums of the royal family since the 1400s.
Finally, beyond the complexity of gender and culture, we all have very personal preferences when it comes to color. These may be informed by our culture, but are more dependent on subconscious experiences in our lives. We all have colors that we love, and ones that we loathe – a fact that any couple who have decided to repaint their living room will appreciate.
The point here is to realize that, no matter how much time you spend researching color psychology, you won’t be able to please everyone with a magic formula. Absolutely do the research (i.e keep reading this chapter to the end), but know at the outset that you will ultimately need to trust your intuition. Considering how emotive color is, this is as it should be.
We’ll equip you to make an informed decision based on some unshakable color palette principles, but the end result is something truly personal to your brand.
Talking about Color
The color wheel is an incredibly concise representation of all the 10 000 000 or so colors detectable to the human eye. Within this circle, every imaginable hue is contained, infinitely expanded into darker shades and lighter tints by moderating the amount of black or white in the color. We also use relative positions on this wheel as a reference for how we classify colors.
To give you a sense of exactly how many options that presents you with, artist Tauba Auberbach converted the color wheel into a printed book for a project in 2011, and let’s just say it wouldn’t fit in your pocket… or your bag, or your bookshelf. The size of this tome is testament to the seemingly endless spectrum of color available to the designer… but at the same time, we see that it is in fact finite. See this as an exciting opportunity to find your inimitable color palette, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the choices.
Can you imagine if you had to select a new combination of colors from the book pictured above every time you opened Over to create a new design? What a frustrating waste of time! Drastically narrowing down your options for your brand colors is essential.
Let’s start by getting the essential principles under our belt, before we go on to make specific decisions for your brand. We’ll begin with the most important classifications, and get more specific from there.
Most of us learnt about the three main characters on the color wheel back in school: red, yellow, and blue. Incredibly, any color in existence can be created by some combination of these three colors (with the addition of black or white to varying degrees). Think of them as the ground floor of a skyscraper: we can build as many levels upon it as we’d like, but without this foundation in place, the structure above it simply cannot exist.
Secondary colors are the result of blending two primary colors. Specifically, they include orange (red + yellow), purple (red + blue), and green (blue + yellow). If you only had these three colors in your painting kit, it would be impossible to retroactively create a primary color. On the color wheel, secondary colors are located in between the primaries.
Whereas secondary colors are typically a 50/50 hybrid of two primaries, tertiary colors strike a similar balance between a primary color, and a secondary color. As such, there are six potential combinations (i.e six tertiary colors), and we label them with double-barrel names that reference both ingredients: blue-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, and yellow-green. These names simultaneously pinpoint their positions on the color wheel: blue-green is located midway between blue and green, for example.
As soon as we begin to lighten pure colors with the addition of white, we start referring to a tint of that color (i.e light blue is a tint of blue, in the same way that lavender is a tint of purple). Tinting moves colors to the pastel side of the spectrum: softer and less intense than pure colors, and favored by brands with a Modern, Elegant, or Minimalist aesthetic. The closer to white a color gets, the lighter it feels – not only in terms of its hue, but also its density. Light pastel backgrounds will seem far more spacious than darker, richer versions of the same color.
Conversely, when we add black to a pure color, it darkens it, and we develop a shade of that color – like the shade of a tree darkens sections of the grass below it. This creates a deeper, more muted expression of the color. Brightness gets dialled down in proportion to the amount of shading. Deeply shaded colors typically evoke sophistication, luxury, tradition, even mystery. They tend to be used in a more serious, less playful context, and as such we often see them in the color palettes of brands inclined towards Luxury or Corporate styling.
Adding grey to a color doesn’t necessarily darken or lighten it, but it does affect its purity, and renders a new variation. It will almost certainly reduce the brightness and ‘punchiness’ of your color, which is why we talk about “toning down” colors that are too vivid.
Once we begin tinting, shading, and toning our colors, our vocabulary expands to accommodate more unique descriptions. Pure ‘blue’ now presents as Teal, Aquamarine, Azure, Duck-Egg, Sky, Turquoise, Cyan, Midnight, Royal, Navy, Cobalt, Steel… or any other poetic name that paint manufacturers love patenting.
Deciding on the intensity of your color palette upfront is a good idea, and should probably precede selecting specific colors. In other words, consider at the outset (based on your brand’s story, images, and graphic style) if your brand is better suited to dark luxurious shades, bright, playful pastels, or pure vivid neons – before you hone in on red, yellow, pink, or green. The tones of your chosen brand colors are comparable to the tone of your voice on social media: what you say is perhaps less important than the way in which you say it.
As an example, you might decide right away that pink is the ideal color for your brand… but consider that neon pink and baby pink live in completely different worlds. ‘Pastel’, in this example, might be a better first gate for your decision to pass through than ‘pink’.
When plugging your brand’s colors into your identity toolkit, consider adding a tint or a tone of each color in your primary palette. These ought to be different enough to contrast against each other when used together: deep blue text standing out against a much lighter blue background, for example.
Contrast is a huge consideration when it comes to picking your brand’s color palette. Possibly the biggest. You see, no matter how dazzling your selection of brand colors might be, if they make our eyes sore, we look away. And colors usually make our eyes sore when we can’t differentiate between them enough. Our poor brains have to work over-time, trying to decipher where the one color ends and the other begins. We struggle to focus. Text is harder to read… These are the nightmarish results of a low contrast color palette.
Essentially, the more different colors are to each other, the more they will stand out from each other, which is why black-on-white is the universal standard for books and newspapers. Maximum contrast creates maximum legibility. It’s worth mentioning here, because color contrast can be looked at in two ways: tone, and hue.
Legibility is largely a factor of tone – the relative lightness and darkness of two colors. The best way to test this is by converting your color palette to black-and-white, and ensuring there’s a very noticeable difference between them. Oh, and never forget that black and white come standard with any color palette. You don’t have to use them, but you’re almost guaranteed to call on them at some point.
Contrasting hues can be a little counter-intuitive. Colors that work in harmony to create impact or dynamic movement, don’t necessarily play well together when it comes to text. Green and red are complementary – opposite each other on the color wheel – which makes them high contrast hues. However, bright red text on a bright green background could be tricky to read.
We mentioned how evocative the names of colors can be as we multiply them (Lacewing, Lobelia, and Cornsilk are personal faves), but with more than ten million of them in existence, it’s unrealistic to imagine that every single one of these has a unique name. These descriptors can definitely get us in the right ballpark, but in order to replicate the exact color consistently in your designs, you’ll need to be more specific than that.
Which is where codes come in handy. There are a few different ones that graphic designers use, depending on the output and operating system, but we’ll focus on the most common one, (and the one you’ll use in Over) to select specific colors: the HEX code.
This is a six-digit code that can pinpoint any color on the Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) spectrum. The first two numbers or letters represent the red value, the middle two represent the green value, and the last two represent the blue value. How this code works is less important – what matters is how we apply it.
In Over, any color you’re working with will display its HEX code when you select or edit it. If you need to share colors with team members or clients, plugging in these six digits will ensure that you clone it identically. If your brand already has defined colors, and you need to import these into your color palette in Over, simply type in or paste the HEX code in the color selector, and that hue will be added to your palette automagically. If you’re unsure of what the HEX code is, simply upload the image or graphic into Over, and use our Color Picker to select the color you want to identify.
This short tutorial video shows you how to explore and edit colors, to create your own brand palette. You'll also see how easy it is to pick specific colors from photographs, for color combos that work perfectly with your images.
All colors are beautiful! We ought to agree that there aren’t any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ colors, so you can’t ever be accused of making a mistake when it comes to selecting your favorite one. However, errors of judgement can be made when it comes to combining them in a color palette. Like font pairing, and next-door-neighbors, not all colors get along brilliantly. Let’s not put too fine a point on it: the wrong color combinations can look hideous. Yikes!
Your first guard against this is restraint. When it comes to selecting a color combination for your brand, always veer towards minimalism. Less is more, pretty much all of the time. You could certainly get away with one hero color for your brand, although two would give you more options to play with. Three color palettes are really popular too (many flag designs go this route when establishing a national ’brand identity’), and this also gives you enough range to cover a wide range of applications.
It might seem limiting at first, but keep the long term goal in mind: a defined range of two, three, or maybe four colors that, over time, become subconsciously associated with your brand. The end result? You become more distinctive, and recognizable to consumers.
Let’s take a look at what definitely does work most of the time, and why – never forgetting that rules are made to be broken, and should continually be put to the test the more confident you become with color expression. Ironically, we’re big fans of anti-design at Over.
There’s certainly no shame in opting for the path of least resistance, and using a single color for your brand identity. Just make sure you’re doing this because it’s consistent with your brand’s stripped-down styling, and not lack of imagination. It might seem like a bold move, but it’s more common than you might realize (ever heard of Facebook or Coca-Cola?). Adding a tint and a shade of your hero color, plus good ol’ black and white, will give you the possibility for some variation. You could of course forego color altogether, and opt for a black-and-white brand palette. Going this direction would place more importance on photographic imagery to bring energy, impact, and personality to your branded content.
Even if you’re dead set on a palette with three or four colors in it, we’d suggest locking down one color that you’re madly in love with, and suits your brand’s style perfectly. This will be your base. Any additional colors you add will originate from a relative point on the color wheel, as we map out the locations of its most suitable companions.
As the name implies, complementary colors work well together, bringing out the best in each other. Every single color has a complementary color, which is nice to know. You’ll know exactly what this is by tracing a direct line from your base color to the opposite end of the color wheel. This is why they’re also referred to as ‘Opposite Colors’. Pure redis complementary to pure green, but the same idea applies to any color on the wheel, no matter where it is. Complementary colors are safe bets to use in tandem, because opposites attract in the world of colors.
The Split Complementary technique works according to similar visual logic, but will provide you with a three-color palette instead of just two. With your base color selected, trace a line to its polar opposite on the color wheel… but then instead of selecting this, look to the two hues on either side of this complementary color.
Matching a given color with its opposite is only one of several codes to crack on the color wheel. If you’re looking for a classic three-color palette for your brand, consider using analogous hues. The term means ‘comparable’, and as such refers to sets of three similar colors sitting side-by-side on the wheel: red, orange, and red-orange, for example.
Here’s another easy hack you can try out on the color wheel: pick a hero color, and then connect it to two others with an equilateral triangle. Voila! You now have a three-color palette that is guaranteed to create visual harmony. This triangle can move around the wheel, creating new palettes with every angle of rotation. Equally spaced from each other, triadic color combinations create a dynamic tug between three very different energies, offering you a wonderful range of expression.
Instead of charting matching colors with a triangle, Tetradic color palettes use a square or a rectangle to locate four points on the color wheel. Opting for a Tetradic palette will definitely make ‘colorful’ a word used to describe your brand, so make sure this is how you want to be seen. The diverse combinations are invariably bold, playful, and energetic. If that sounds like you, start sketching those squares…
Finally, a word on finding balance. For all of the formulas listed above, it would be incorrect to assume that you need to use these colors in equal ratios. Our eyes can’t take everything in instantaneously – they need some kind of anchor as a starting point to engage with your design. More often than not, one color will dominate, and the others will serve to accentuate this. It’s almost impossible to prescribe fixed techniques for finding this balance – you’ll need to play around and see what looks best.
Variations on a Theme
All of this color theory is most pertinent to new businesses at the start of their journey, focusing on a strong brand identity to get noticed, and be distinct. As your brand grows, you may find good reasons to expand your brand’s color palette accordingly. The clearest example might be a new flavor added to your range: the introduction of “Grape Ape” to your product offering might justify adding a shade of purple to your brand board. Or you could just run a purple-themed campaign to launch this new flavor.
This brings up a crucial distinction between brand and campaign color palettes. Right now we’re focused on developing your brand’s visual ‘home base’, but all the same principles apply when you’re ready to venture out further; to create promotional content, or launch a new product. It makes sense if your campaigns draw from your brand’s identity kit, but they don’t always have to. Specific colors can make guest appearances in your marketing content.
Seasonality and special events are obvious places to try out variations. You might pick a particularly bright and colorful palette for a Summer Special, or a more muted, earthy one for your big Fall Sale. Many special days also have associated colors: Halloween is Pumpkin Orange, St. Patrick’s Day is Shamrock Green, and Black Friday is, well… black. Incorporating these into your marketing material might make it more contextually relevant.
That’s pretty much all the color theory you need to know to start making informed color decisions for your brand identity. Remember to trust your instincts, and use certain formulas on the color wheel to help you work out which colors work best together. It’s a process that’s all too easy to get lost in, so don’t forget to refer to your brand’s story to guide you when it feels confusing. Find parallels between your values, your narrative, your goals, and the tones that wordlessly express these same ideals.
If the process does seem daunting, it’s useful to know that there are folks dedicated to concocting beautiful color palettes, who make these available for free. If you’re really in the weeds and don’t know where to begin, we’d definitely suggest scrolling through some of these sites. Screenshot or download these images, open them up in Over, and use the Color Picker to replicate and store this palette. Or just copy the HEX codes. You can always modify these colors slightly, in accordance with your unique style.