How To Choose Colors That Look Good All The Time

Today I want to talk to you about choosing colors. Picking the right colors is an important aspect of my job as a graphic designer. Colors evoke meaning, send a message, and grab attention. But, unless you've had a class in color theory, picking colors can be frustrating. Some colors go together, some don't, and who knows why? I'll explain a couple of easy ways to pick colors that always look great.

First though, why do you think there are so many blue logos out there? These blue logos are symbolic of corporate America. They also symbolize strength and wealth. So, everyone should have a blue logo that fits into a square, right?


Of course not! Your logo should be individualized to you. However, blue is the easiest color to see! Why is that?

Colorblindness leaves a lot of men and women unable to see green and red. But most people CAN see blue! Colorblindness, in addition to not having classes in color theory, is another factor in why it's hard to get colors to look good. So, how can you pick colors that always look good? Before we get into that, below are a few definitions that you will run across when you start choosing colors. 

CMYK which stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (or BlacK) are the 4 colors of ink some color printers use. They blend these inks together to create all of the colors in printed materials. If you are sending your document out to be printed make sure your file is in CMYK mode. 

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue and they are the 3 colors of light that are blended together to make different colors for web, tv, or film. Colors look better in RGB mode if you're putting it up on the web.

This is called a color wheel. It dates back to the 17th century and you can pick one up in any art supply store for about $5-10 depending on how fancy you want to get. It's based on the 3 primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Mixing these 3 colors gives you all the colors we humans can see. Mixing red and yellow gets orange, yellow and blue gets green, and blue and red gets purple. These new colors are called secondary colors or complimentary colors. If you mix the complimentary colors together you get tertiary colors like blue-green, yellow-orange, red-purple. And if you mix them all together you get brown. You can experiment mixing different colors together to give you a better idea of how many colors you can achieve. 

Using the color wheel is the EASIEST way to pick colors once you know a couple of methods. So, if you're a beginner, unsure about color or maybe you're colorblind, the next techniques can be very helpful.

Pick your main color and then choose your color scheme (or group of colors) for the rest of your project. One reason to hire a designer is if you're trying to do this in a group situation. If you've ever been in a group think session you know it can be really tough to settle on one color that everyone likes. Part of my job as a designer is to help navigate you through this process. 

A monochromatic color scheme uses the full range of colors from one wedge of the color wheel. In the example above, I used a range of greens.

An analogous color scheme uses colors from either side of your main color on the color wheel. In my example, I used greens and blues and purples.

A complimentary color scheme uses your main color and the color directly across from it on the color wheel. You may start to notice other things that use this method, like the Lakers' logo, most Christmas cards, or the Fanta logo.

In general, more sophisticated designs use less colors. The more colors you use, the more childlike, or young, your design can get. When you're starting out, I recommend trying to stick to 3 colors.

Here it's useful to use something called the 60-30-10 principle. 60% of your project should be in your main color. Use your secondary color 30% and an accent color for 10%. This is good because it's easier to emphasize things if you have a good ratio. It's easy to visualize this using a man's suit. The pants and jacket make up 60% while the shirt is 30% and the tie is the accent color. But, what if you need more colors?

If you need more colors, you can use the tint and shade of your main colors. Tint is pure color mixed with white and shade is pure color mixed with black. You might need more colors if you're designing something content-rich like a web page, brochure, or book and need to accentuate more details. But, you need to be careful. The more colors you use, the more childish your design can look.

Until you have more practice with colors and have a good understanding of how and when to use more colors, you'll want to avoid being too liberal with how many colors you use. You don't want your project to be loud, clashing, or seem like there's too much going on. Anything you do that distracts your target audience from your message needs to be avoided.