Colour: how to choose the right colours with your designer

Ross Hall

April 8, 2021
(Updated on July 21, 2021)

A simple colour wheel on a rainbow background

Recommendations about the colour to use in your brand can seem a little arbitrary. Sometimes the mix “just works” and you don’t know why. Or the designer suggests using a slightly different variation on your brand for this specific design. Maybe the mix of colours doesn’t “feel” quite right.

You can easily dismiss these ideas as “designer’s ego”.

This article is meant to help you understand why your designer is making their suggestions. I’ll introduce “colour theory”, explore why colours do – and don’t – work together, and give some insight into the differences between print and digital.

First, a little colour theory

“Colour Theory” helps to explain why some combinations work and others don’t. It’s been evolving over the past few hundred years as first printers and then digital creatives tried to figure out how to use colour to good effect. It’s led to the creation of RGB, CMYK, Pantone and other jargon that can sometimes seem like an alien language.

Front and centre for explaining how colour theory works for our purposes is the colour wheel. You may remember the light spectrum from school, where Isaac Newton split white light into its constituent colours using a prism. On the left is the warm red light, moving through different shades and colours until the cold violet on the right.

What is a colour wheel and why does it matter?

The colour wheel is similar to the spectrum, but works in a circle rather than a line. This is possible because different colours are made by mixing primary colours. In digital these colours are Red, Blue and Green, in print they’re Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK, which is where we get RGB and CMYK from.

A simple colour wheel
A simple colour wheel

As we’ll see later, this wheel helps understand why certain combinations work well, and others don’t.

RGB vs CMYK (or digital versus print)

How colour is produced is different between digital and print. It’s worth understanding these differences as a designer may have to take a slightly different approach for something on the web compared to a brochure.

Computer screens are made up of small lights called pixels and each has a red, green and blue element. Whether you see red, purple, black or white is determined by how much of these three primary colours is mixed together.

CMYK is used in print design because it corresponds to the primary colours of ink. Colours are formed by mixing these inks together, usually by printing one over the top of another.

For example, in digital creating an orange colour requires a lot of red, half as much green and a splash of blue. For a printed document it’s no cyan, some magenta, a lot of yellow and a small amount of black, depending on how dark you want it.

Chart showing how one colour is formed in RGB and CMYK colour systems

Because these systems work differently, it isn’t always possible to recreate colours faithfully between them. This is why you might see something on your screen and say it looks great, but when it gets printed it looks slightly different.

Contrasting colour

In simple terms, contrast is the difference between two colours. Where there’s a lot of difference it’s said to be “high contrast”, while similar colours are “low contrast”.

High contrast colours are opposite one another on the colour wheel. At their extreme, combining them should cancel one another out and become white. For example, the deep red at the top of the circle has CMYK values of 100, 100, 0, 0 (don’t worry about black for now). The blue opposite is 0, 0, 100, 0. Combine them and you have 100,100,100,0 – the value for white.

Graphic showing high contrast colours on a colour wheel

When colours are next to one another, they’re low contrast. More on that in a moment.

Graphic showing low contrast colours on a colour wheel

Mixing contrasting colours

Although high contrast colours can be dramatic and eye-catching, they’re also best used sparingly. It can become tiring to look them, so while green text on a pink background might seem like it has a high impact, it’s not ideal for large amounts of text or complex diagrams.

A low contrast can also prove problematic. Elements can get lost if the colours are too close together.

Making a design readable

For digital designs there are guidelines on the level of contrast between elements. This is to help make designs accessible for people who have difficulties with their sight. There are specific ratios below which designs shouldn’t fall, so a designer might adjust your agreed colours to meet these guidelines.

Although there aren’t firm guidelines for print, designers will aim to create something that can be read. Those of us who work in both print and digital media sometimes apply the same broad principles.

Working with your designer

When a designer makes a suggestion to alter or adapt some aspect of colour, a simple “no” rarely works. Take some time to understand WHY a change is being suggested and look for compromise. It’s rare for a suggestion to be made purely from ego, so trust the designer to help you find a good design that respects your brand colours and makes the right impact.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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