How do designers choose colour? Part 2


I remember being struck by colour for the first time when I was five years old. It was cold out and I was in my winter coat — it was a bulky wool number that went to my knees. I was all wrapped up in scarves and mitts — I remember the mitts because I had to take them off in order to pick up an object that was the most beautiful, amazing colour I had ever seen. There was an abandoned robin’s egg shell on the ground — it was very delicate and tiny — and it was such a zingy, crisp, turquoise that it seemed to be singing and vibrating next to the browns and grays of the wintery yard. I felt excited just by looking at it! So I took it home, and kept stealing glances at it like I was taking little licks from a lollipop.

Clearly, I am wired to get excited about colour.

Colour is one of my favourite topics. As my little story illustrates, some of us have a deeper than usual relationship with colour. I experience colour the way some people experience flavour. When I see a colour that I love, I feel like I just want to keep looking at it and looking at it — as if I am tasting it … savouring it … absorbing it. I can’t get enough of it! Clearly I am wired to get excited about colour.

Why reveal my personal colour fetish? Well, because choosing colour is not all rules and logistics. Yes, the answers to the questions outlined in my “How Designers Choose Colour, Part I” article go a long way towards allowing a designer to develop an understanding of the personality of the project in order to envision how colour can support, express, and enhance it. But there is way more to it than that.

“How Designers Choose Colour, Part l” was all about getting clear on the goals, meanings, logistics, and context for a project. Part lI of this article is about describing how to convey meaning and feeling with colour — and picking colours that work.

How do I actually choose colours?

Good question. It is not a straightforward or easily describable process. Every project is unique. That is such an important point that I’ll say it again: every project is unique. Choosing colours for a project is a process of considering logistics and parameters, considering context, meaning, and goals — it is also a process of creative thinking.

What colours will convey the desired meanings?

Here’s what I do: I think about all the information I have gathered and reason out the meanings and associations. I imagine what kind of general feeling and energy might support the client’s project goals and resonate with the target audiences. I start by considering meanings generally associated with colours in order to pare down the options. I can usually cross-off a few colours right away because they are obviously inappropriate. Eventually, a range of possible colours and their shades and tints will emerge from the brainstorming and research. It is a continuous refining process from there.

When we choose colour based on generalizations, communication materials all start looking the same.

Generalizing about what colour means

Don’t do it. There are some generalizations we can make about meanings and feelings associated with colours, but in my opinion, not many. Here’s one I’ll grudgingly give up: Red and orange are read as warm and active, while blue and green are seen as cool and soothing. But context and juxtaposition play such an important role that I can’t even really stand behind that generalization.

Generalizations are only minimally useful. Blue’s association with reliability and tradition (as I mentioned in Part I), for example, could be challenged based on the shade of blue chosen. I would argue that while navy blue may be associated with reliability and tradition, a bright turquoise blue does not convey that same feeling.

When we choose colour based on generalizations, communication materials all start looking the same. We can achieve subtler, more resonant custom colour combinations by reasoning them out, and not going with obvious, more ubiquitous colour choices.

 How does cultural context affect colour associations?

There are many resources that associate specific colours to specific meanings, emotions or ideas, but they can be problematic. This is because our associations with colour are culturally constructed. For example, red can mean one thing in a North American context, and another in China. There is no definitive meaning of red. Meanings can conflict even within a particular culture. Red can actually mean many things here in Canada: stop, warning, love, passion, and patriotism, to name a few common connotations.

Relationships between colours

Colour is just one element we can use to create meaning and feeling. The tint and shade of a colour has a huge impact on the feeling you want to convey.

Shades (colour that looks like black has been added) tend to be experienced as more sophisticated, calm, and serious than tints (colour that looks like white has been added — like pastels) which tend towards feelings of delicacy, whimsy and softness.

Additionally, feeling gets conveyed in the relationships between the colours we choose to use — especially contrast.

Using colours that are far apart from each other (high contrast) tend to convey the feeling of yelling or furiously waving hands (imagine bright red and black stripes or electric blue polka dots on a white background). Combining primary colours reminds people of playful children’s’ toys.

Colours that are in close range to each other (low contrast) feel calmer and quieter, as if they are sauntering along or standing still (imagine medium grays next to smoky browns). They are more soothing and stable than the high contrast combinations.


Believe it or not, choosing colours does take practice. I once had two days to decide on nine colours to paint the interior walls of my house. As you know, I am a Communication Designer, not an Interior Designer — and I made the mistake of presuming that my skills were transferable. They were not — at least not completely. Sure my experience with colour helped, but I was not practiced in choosing colours for interior design purposes. And, wow, colour sure looks different once you put it on a big wall. The result was that only about half the colours worked out truly well. Fortunately, I have plenty of experience choosing colours for print and web purposes.

Colour theory

Colour theory is an immense topic with many competing colour theories and methods. While I am NOT delving into it here, just know that colour is not some willy-nilly, esoteric subject — yes, science, numbers and facts lurk behind it!

Creative thinking

Creative thinking is the final key element for choosing the right colour palette. While not without its rewards, the creative process can be — and very often is — a painstaking endeavour. As I sift through the research, I look for my robin’s egg: the trigger that provides the insight for the creative process that will guide me in choosing a colour palette that is both stunning and original. It can be a concept, a connection, an image, or even something as simple as one word. This is one process that cannot be completely explained, but forms the core of any good designer’s resources. (How’s that for blatant self-promotion?)

Achieve the gorgeous

Colour is probably one of the most powerful elements in design because it has the ability to elicit a strong emotional response. A good designer knows how to manipulate and harmonize colour so that the project goals are met, and the resulting design is memorable and authentic. Selecting the right colour palette involves experience, research, and consideration of logistics, parameters, context, meaning, and goals. It requires forming a relationship with colour ... mine started with a blue eggshell on a cold winter day.