Use of Color in Design

by John
Eberhard

Color
and the selection of colors in the development of a color scheme is
one of the most vital elements to use properly in graphic design, and
is one area where non-professionals are usually not well trained.

Although
the use of color is very much subject to opinion, you might be
surprised to know that there is a considerable technology of the use
of color. And if you follow the general rules, you will usually have
a color scheme that is integrated and aesthetic, and if you violate
the rules, you can end up with a color scheme that is disjointed and
hideous.

The
first thing to know about color and color schemes is the use of the
color wheel. I have scanned and included here a copy of a simple
color wheel from the book “Color Harmony” by Hieaki Chijiiwa,
which I recommend.            Color Wheel Graphic

When
you’re deciding on colors for a color scheme for a web site, a
promo piece, a direct mail piece, an ad, or a page or spread in a
magazine, you want to keep it simple. You should have no more than
two dominant colors (not including black and white) in that web site,
promo piece, ad, spread or whatever. When I say “dominant colors”
I mean the colors that are represented in large areas. You can have
other colors in small areas (called “spot color”). But for your
big, broad areas of the piece, you want only two colors, or at the
most three.

So how
do you select those two colors? Well the color wheel can be your
guide. One method I use frequently which works well is to select
color opposites on the wheel. Use of color opposites tends to give
you an integrated and aesthetic look. By this I mean, mainly:
blue-orange, red-green, yellow-purple.

I have
used blue-orange a lot in designs during my career, usually with
great results. Red-green tends to give you a sort of Christmas look,
but you can get around this by using subdued shades of either green
or red, like dark green or burgundy. Yellow-purple can give you some
very striking results and I have seen it used very well. Although
technically according to the rules it should not work, I have built
color schemes using blue and red and achieved very good results.

It’s
good to have a near-balance between the two dominant colors, but
usually with one color being more dominant.

Once you
have your dominant colors in there, you can start adding some spot
colors to make your design more alive. For example, if you are
working with a blue-orange color scheme, you should figure out a way
to bring in some small areas of yellow or red. This makes the design
more alive. But don’t make these other colors dominant or you could
end up with a mess. For example, you would not want to make a design
with equal parts of blue, red and yellow. I’ve seen it done and it
is not pretty.

I advise
spending a little time looking at some web sites, promo pieces,
advertisements, magazine spreads, etc., to see how they use color and
how they put their color schemes together. You will see some that are
hideous and garish in their use of color, and some that are works of
art.

Saturated
colors” are the pure color without adding black or white. The
colors shown in the color wheel above are saturated colors. “Shades”
are when you add black to the saturated color to get a darker result.
“Tints” are when you add white to get a lighter color. Saturated
colors tend to make your design feel brighter and more alive, and
more masculine. Tints, i.e. pastels, tend to give a more feminine
feel. Darker tints make it feel heavy.

Next
week I’ll cover a bit about what each of the colors and color types
communicates.

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