Color Theory & Building a Dynamic Color Palette

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How do these colors make you feel? Excited? Joyful? Gloomy? Energized? Calm? Hungry?

From advertising to fine art, we use color to evoke emotion and derive meaning from images. Color is a form of non-verbal communication. Your brain processes color before you are consciously aware of it. Color theory is the study of how colors make us feel, and it is an essential resource for intentionally communicating information through visuals.

When creating a color palette, it’s important to be aware of the emotional associations tied to colors.

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The color wheel is separated into warm and cool colors, and this distinction is used heavily in color theory. Warm colors feel vivid and energetic, and advance into space. Cool colors feel calm, and recede into the background. Because warm colors advance and cool colors recede, the effect of depth is created. This theory is rooted in the fact that your eye adjusts when focusing on colors of different wavelengths. Red light waves have a longer wavelength than blue ones, and red light is one end of the visible spectrum, while blue and violet light are on the other. White, black, and gray are neutral colors, which can also influence how your palette is perceived.

How I create a palette

First, I determine what kind of mood I want to set for a brand. The goal is to choose colors that echo the qualities the brand wants to communicate. For me, the first step to building a brand identity is creating the color palette. It sets the tone for the other elements to come. Let’s say I'm creating a palette for a brand that wants to be viewed as trustworthily, stable, and knowledgeable. I would begin by experimenting colors that evoke those specific qualities.

The below is a general guide of how primary, secondary, and neutral colors are perceived. 

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Nuances of color

Shades and tints of the same color can express different qualities. Take these three shades of blue for example. They all fall under the "cool" color category, and embody the general qualities of blue — but shades and tints of blue communicate subtle nuances to the viewer. 

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Balance

Balance is also meaningful when choosing colors that will work well together. A quick test I do when created a palette is something I call the "grayscale color test." This test makes it easy to see how varying the tones in your palette are. You need colors to complement each other, in both color and tone.

If your palette looks similar to the below, the grayscale color test will show how little contrast your colors have on a tonal level. 

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If your palette looks similar to the below, the grayscale color test will show the dynamic range of tones in your palette.

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Having a palette that includes saturated colors paired with subdued colors will also aid in your design. When you’re trying to achieve a visual hierarchy of information or text, having your colors contrast against each other is key in achieving this depth. In practice, you will commonly need one element to stand out and be read first, and want the other information recede into the background and be read last. Your eye follows these patterns before your brain can even think about it.

A common mistake

One of the most common issues I see are palettes made up of only saturated colors, only subdued colors or only palettes made up of only warm colors or only cool colors. Palettes that are made up of similar tones/saturations will be very difficult to design with. The colors in your palette may look good together as a whole, but you must also experiment with how your colors work when layered, and in various combinations. When creating a brand palette specifically, these colors need to be dynamic enough to create many different designs in many different mediums, so there needs to be a good amount of color combinations that work well together in order to keep your design pieces looking fresh for a long time.

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How to avoid creating a palette that won't go the distance

Using your working palette, try placing text in colors of the palette over other palette colors and see how legibility is affected, and how these color combos work together in practice. If you find that only two of the five chosen palette colors work well together in application, the palette needs more refining. Including more colors that vary in tone from each other will help solve this problem.


Mariella McNeany is the senior art director at James & Matthew. She joined the team in 2016 and lives in Chicago, Illinois with her husband and a grumpy chihuahua named Austin.