Steps to choosing a successful colour scheme

Choosing the right colour scheme takes a combination of research, design know-how and inspiration. Whether you’re creating a website or a print publication with lots of white space, your choice of colours is an critical element to the overall design. It’s important to do this early in a design project, in order not to waste time later by altering colours. In this post I’m providing a guide to the questions I address when selecting a colour pallette to work with.

Are there specific colours required for the client?

It’s common for clients to have a pre-existing logo which must be incorporated into a new design project. The logo’s original colour must be adhered to. Clients may also have specific colours due to industrial or safety requirements. They may even need certain colours in a design because of a type of product they sell e.g. oranges.

Can the nature of the design job be a guide on colour choices?

Is the design screen-based or print-based? If print, will the output be in 4 colour, 2 colour or 1 colour? What type of paper do you intend to use? What content will you be incorporating: text, illustrations, photography, diagrams, maps, patterns? What is the balance between various design elements (e.g. lots of text, occasional photographs, or a gallery of images with little text). Will your colour scheme be bold to enhance large blocks of text, complementary to a featured image, or muted to allow a gallery of photographs to shine? All of these things will affect your colour choice.

How long is the design expected to last?

Logos and corporate identities should expect to look fresh for many years, even decades after their creation. On the other hand, a publication which is issued seasonally (like a store catalogue) may want to change its look and feel with each new issue and is more likely to be inspired by changing fashions in colour schemes.

What tone are you seeking to convey through the design?

Colour plays a major role in establishing the tone of a design. Earthy tones suggest warmth, while blue can indicate professionalism and trustworthiness. A bright colour scheme evokes playfulness, while high contrast colours are very dynamic. Certain colour schemes can also be very trendy for a period of time; their use suggests a fashionable edge to a design.

Who’s taking notice?

Colour is vitally important when designing for a select audience or market. Older people have trouble reading text against a low-contrast background. Certain colour combinations appeal more to men, others more to women (and don’t assume that pink is automatically a colour you should choose when designing for women!). Even children vary in their response to certain colour combinations depending on their age. It’s also handy to keep in mind that a small proportion of the population is colour-blind and may have difficulty distinguishing certain colours from each other.

What is the competition doing?

The designer’s job is to make the client stand out from their competitors, and a carefully chosen colour scheme is one option for achieving this. A good designer will always conduct research into their client’s market and competition before committing to any design concepts; comparing colour schemes is an important part of that research.

Image by doug88888

What are the best colour combinations?

By now I usually have at least one or two colours in mind, but might need to do some more work on selecting the exact shades, or additional colours for the pallette. This is where colour tools can be extremely handy. I frequently use Kuler by Adobe and ColourLovers for their speed and vast library of colour pallettes to get ideas from. Adobe Illustrator CS3 also comes with an online connection to Kuler’s colour library.

What are some ideas for colour inspiration?

Whenever I see a great colour scheme on a website, I keep a note of it for future reference (hoping the colour scheme will survive any future redesign process!). delicious is a good place to do this. Personally, I use a combination of delicious and lists which I create in Google Docs. One good starting point for inspiration is my previous post on this topic: Fundamentals of good design: Colour schemes. When I find an image with a great combination of colours on Flickr, I add it to my favourites (you will need to create a free account with Flickr to do this).

The objective in choosing a colour scheme is to find the right combination of colours to best fit the client’s design needs. It doesn’t have to be beautiful – what it does have to be is successful at conveying the intended message to the client’s target market.

What steps do you find useful in selecting a colour scheme?

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