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?

More resources:

Comments

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    November 25, 2008 at 10:37 am

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  • inspirationbit

    November 25, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    I like Colourlovers site, but somehow never got to use any of their colour schemes in my designs. I usually go for colour inspiration to Kuler widget on my Mac’s Dashboard, or hit Flickr and search for images with a particular colour combination in mind. Also I find my design books and magazines very helpful. Sometimes it’s a combination of colours from different sources plus my experiments lead me to the right colour scheme for the project.

    inspirationbit’s last blog post … Design Critique: Leon Paternoster

  • LaurenMarie – Creative Curio

    November 25, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    This is a good list of questions to go through for the color selection process! I’ve never consciously broken it down this way. Have you seen the new Pantone ColorMunki? I got one in the mail as a trial and as soon as I get around to figuring it out, I’ll be writing a review on it. But so far, the website it pretty cool! I particularly like the filter you can turn on for the type of paper you’re using. For example, I’ve never worked with newspaper myself and it seems a little indimidating because of the limited gamut!

    LaurenMarie – Creative Curio’s last blog post … Combating Designer鈥毭劽磗 Block

  • thinkflick

    November 26, 2008 at 3:01 am

    Most of the times I make color scheme in my mind not on paper. Then make changes on specific parts after implementing it if necessary.

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  • Alison

    November 26, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    thanks for that link on the color oracle… my roommate is color blind and I’ve always wondered what he saw. sometimes he wouldn’t understand my designs because of his handicap. now i know what he see’s so I can design better things for people!

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  • Tracey Grady

    November 27, 2008 at 7:07 am

    inspirationbit:
    Your sources for ideas sound very similar to mine. I also find that I visit kuler and ColourLovers more for inspiration than to use their colour schemes. I usually do a lot of tweaking until I have a colour combination that I’m happy with.

    CreativeCurio:
    Thanks for mentioning Pantone’s ColorMunki – I hadn’t seen it before, and I agree that the filter for different paper stocks is a great idea.

    thinkflick:
    It’s interesting to hear you work out colours in your head. Making changes later can work in a screen-based medium like the web, but is open to problems for print design. It’s not a process that I think would be efficient for most designers.

    Alison:
    It’s very easy to overlook considerations like colour-blindness when creating a design. I’m really glad that you’ve found a useful resource here.

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  • kristarella

    November 27, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    I always have trouble choosing a colour scheme. Sometimes I think I want to stray away from blue, but I often end up coming back to it.

    Have you seen Color in Motion? It’s pretty cool. Helpful for looking into effects of colour.

  • inspirationbit

    November 27, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    Kristarella, thanks a lot for the Colour in Motion link. I haven’t seen it before. It’s something that I can even watch with my daughter and get her understand the colour symbolism from the young age 馃槈

    inspirationbit’s last blog post … Design Critique: Leon Paternoster

  • Tracey Grady

    November 27, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    kristarella:
    I have seen Color in Motion before; it was a few years ago and I had forgotten about it since then. I agree with inspirationbit that it would make a great educational tool. Thanks for mentioning it here.

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  • Jon Williams

    December 1, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Nice write-up on choosing the right color. Cheers.

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  • Shay Howe – Chicago Freelance Web Designer

    June 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    This is a fantastic article, thank you!

    At times figuring out the colour scheme can be the hardest part of a design. There will be times where I will have a layout and design wire frame finished for a project without even knowing what colours I’m going to use. You’ve outlined some great ideas and resources here.

    Thank you!

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  • Manik

    October 19, 2010 at 3:36 am

    Great article. Nice list of questions have been given here which can definitely help out in color selection process.
    Thanks for the wonderful tips.

  • Michael

    January 18, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    I think the colors must be very careful choose for a maximum of effect. However, the best thing to do it is to respect these steps, posted above. Very useful for a beginner like me. Thank you !
    .-= Michael´s last blog ..Sony HDR-CX305 =-.

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