Improving Fundamental Design Elements: Part II. Color

When designers first start off, I feel like two things happen regarding colors; one, the designer is hesitant to use combinations of color and will stick with black, white, and perhaps one accent color; Two, the designer will use every color in the rainbow, essentially making it impossible to make any sort of compatible color scheme.

This is why a conversation about color  is so important, even after introductory color theory classes. The reason, quite possibly, is that students learn about color without understanding exactly how to apply it within graphic design. Students may also have different backgrounds on the topic that are inconsistent or perhaps the topic is just so complex that it requires much practice and repetition to be digested properly.

For many reasons, I like to take some time to work specifically on color exercises and introduce some techniques for creating strong palettes for your design work.

1. Start with multiple resources like color books, and/or pantone swatches

Many of these resources will provide color palettes for you while explaining different meanings for each family of colors. This is a great place to start, especially if you are unfamiliar with color theory.

A couple books that I own and recommend:

Jim Krausse, Color Index

Leatrice Eiseman, Color – Messages & Meanings is a great online resource provided by adobe that will supply you with popular color palettes but will also allow you to manipulate and customize your own palettes from a single color or from an image. The interface is user-friendly and is great option for someone who is ready to start creating their own schemes.

Another great online resource is ColorSchemeDesigner:

Pantone swatches are a great way to use color swatches to make color schemes. The only disadvantage with pantone swatches is that they are VERY expensive. This is not usually an option for student-level designers but knowing that the tool is available is still important. Pantone markers are also a great tool for sketching and are available at local art & design stores.

2. Create Mood Boards

Mood boards can be very helpful for discovering color schemes that evoke certain feelings and messages. Think about what message or feeling you wish to evoke in your design work and find images online and in magazines (or take your own photos) that capture a similar feeling that you want to portray. Examine the colors that are consistent across emotions. Begin to pull some of those colors out using digital means like the eye dropper tool in Photoshop. Begin to build a color palette.

3. Understanding color modes

Understand what you are designing for (i.e., print, digital, press) and make sure to use accurate colors. It is essential to understand that colors you find on (screen colors) will look brighter due to the light behind your monitor than that same color printed on paper via ink. As a general rule of thumb, I also tell new designers that colors created via ink is always darker than colors on the screen.

These are 3 color modes:

RGB – Red, Green, Blue – color mode for digital work (i.e., online, video, flash, etc.)
CMYK – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (black) – color mode for printing (also called process color)
PMS – Pantone Matching System – color mode for press printing

For more information on the different color modes, check out this blog posted by Pixellogo.

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