Playing with Color Basics - Psychology and the Technicolor Postcard
Without a doubt design is a fairly subjective matter. It’s nothing short of challenging to account for personal taste and preferences. Color in design is no exception. A color may cause one person react one way and another person will have a have a completely different reaction. Happily, these reactions can be fairly culturally predictable. For example, in Western culture white often carries with it the connotations of purity while in Eastern cultures it represents mourning. One more hitch, though: color carries very personal meanings that may vary slightly from one’s culture. Color is known to affect mood and encourage certain types of behaviors, such as stimulating appetites. Also, some colors may be more appealing to certain sexes and age groups than others. The bad news is color can be a complex subject to navigate. The good news, however, is there are many tools and conventions in place that make choosing color for your designs a bit less daunting.
First things first. Before we get into picking colors for your next postcard design, I want to give you a crash course in color theory. Yes! I said it: COLOR THEORY! It’s an actual area of study and research. Scientists, artists and designers have been studying how humans perceive, process, and live with color for hundreds of years. So I’m here to school you on the basics. And by basics, I’m talking the basement of kindergarten color school here, not a PHD in Human Visible Spectrum Sciences level. Ready? Here we go!
What is color?
Color is what the brain perceives when light, striking an object, is reflected back to the eye. Seems simple enough, right?
Some food for thought: thanks to the 3 color receptors we have in our eyes, humans can see approximately 10 million colors! This may sound like a lot, but if you were a duck, your 5 color receptors could perceive 170% more color. I’m not math wiz, but something tells me a duck would have a complete psychedelic experience at a rave dance party from the visual stimulation alone!
To keep it simple, the following information is based on the traditional color wheel.
From these three primary colors all 10 million of those colors we see can be made:
Red, Yellow and Blue
By mixing the primary colors, you create secondary colors:
Yellow + Red= Orange
Blue + Yellow = Green
Red + Blue = Violet
Tertiary colors are made when a primary is mixed with the secondary color next to it on the color wheel.
Blue + Green = blue-green
Green + Yellow = green-yellow
Yellow + Orange = yellow-orange
Orange + Red = orange-red
Red + Violet = red-violet
Violet + Blue = violet-blue
Black, White and Grey are considered neutral colors. By adding these to a color you create a value of that color. A value is how light or dark a color is. By adding white, black or grey to a color, you move that color toward the neutral realm.
The types of values are:
Tint - adding white to a hue
Tone - adding grey to a hue
Shade - adding black to a hue
If you chop the color wheel into two halves, you’ll have cool colors on one side and warm colors on the other.
Warm colors - Tend to pop forward and feel more vibrant
Cool colors - Tend to recede back and feel more calming
By altering the properties mentioned below, you can have any range of color.
Hue - Another way to say color. By adjusting the hue, you essentially are picking a different color.
Saturation - Saturation is the intensity of the hue. Saturation of the hue can be diminished by blending with it’s complementary color. Complementary colors are the colors opposite one another on the color wheel.
Now that we have the basic color terms and definitions out of the way, we can start discussing how to use color in your design, right? Wrong! Because color can be so subjective, you first must know who you're designing for, what you’re trying to say, and how you want to say it. Are you speaking to a young audience? Are you announcing a grand opening? Is it a branded piece that needs to reflect your company’s image? Knowing the answer to questions like these will aid in selecting an effective color palette. Below is an uber brief list of colors and the meanings usually associated with them. To dig a little deeper, check out these two resources for a bit of direction on what colors to use for which audiences and how color can support your message:
Tan or Beige: Conservative
Cream or Ivory: Elegant
Just as there are harmonies in music, there are harmonies in color. Selecting combinations of color that create a sense of visual balance, a sense of order and are pleasing to look at is the goal of good color use. When colors are out of harmony, they can appear either boring or chaotic. An interesting thing about the human brain is it ignores or disregards what it finds uninteresting or disorganized. Our brains seek harmony and balance. On one extreme, if the information presented is boring, the brain will ignore it. On the other extreme, if the information is chaotic, the brain will disregard it. The takeaway? Don’t choose a boring color palette and don’t choose an overdone color palette – your audience's brains will not pay any attention to the design.
Monochrome - A monochromatic color palette is one where different shades or tones of the same hue are used. These color schemes create an often refined or elegant feel to the piece.
Analogous - An analogous color pallette is one that uses colors that are next to one another on the color wheel. Analogous colors typically match well and create a comfortable or serene picture. Make certain to have enough contrast in your analogous color palette so your image doesn’t become too boring.
Complementary - A complementary color palette uses colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel. When complementary colors are placed next to one another, they create intense contrast and each make the other appear more intense. Complementary color schemes often have a very vibrant and energetic feel to them. Be cautious when using a complementary color palette as it can be easy to create one that is overdone and too harsh to read.
Custom - A custom color palette is one that doesn’t stick rigidly to preset harmonies. Some colors just look great together or happen to be in fashion! The better you understand how colors work together the easier it is to create a custom palette. One of my favorite techniques in developing a custom color palette is to start with a photo that I find striking. I’ll upload that photo to Adobe Kuler and it generates a few palette options based on the photo. Another great resource for custom palettes is Design Seeds. Sometimes I’ll just peruse that site for inspiration before I even have a project! But I’m an art nerd and I love color, so that little pastime suits me well.
If you want to play with some traditional color harmonies, check out this palette picking tool Paletton. It’s impressively robust and covers the color harmonies mentioned in this post plus more.
Despite the length of this post, I have barely scratched the surface of color theory. Commit a few of the basics to memory – warm colors pop forward and cool colors recede, understand how to create a strong complementary palette and, by all means, know your audience. After that, have fun with color and pay attention to color in design and the world around you. You never know what you will come across that can inspire your next design, so keep your eyes open and play a little.