How do designers choose colour? Part 2


If I had a definitive answer for this question then I would invent a button that I could push to get the colours that work every time. Ha. I wish. Colour is way too tricky for that. Colour is a key element in human expression and therefore plays a big role in how we perceive, feel and respond to what we see. Every project has its own specific set of idiosyncrasies, requirements, intentions, technical limitations and opportunities and should get its own carefully considered solution that makes the most of colour. When deciding about colour we need to take many things into consideration, weigh them, balance them, analyze them and then make strategic decisions. Every colour decision should have reasoning behind it.

Every colour decision should have reasoning behind it.

In this two-part article I explain how I, as a designer, determine colour for a particular project, and give design clients a resource to use to prepare for their own projects. Preparation makes projects go more smoothly. Part I of the article focuses on questions that need to be asked and answered before the specific colours are considered.

Keep in mind that colour is a BIG subject, and I am just skimming the surface of how I choose colours mostly in relation to context and meaning. I am not delving into colour theory here at all — but be aware that in addition to the meaning and context of colour, there is a technical and theoretical basis that designers use when choosing colour that can mean the difference between garish and gorgeous.

The colours we choose can mean the difference between garish and gorgeous.

First, gather information

Here are the questions I would ask my client (and myself) when deciding upon a colour palette for a project. They’ll give you an idea of what goes into making decisions about colour, help you prepare for your project, and dispel any suspicions that we designers simply pick our favourites.

When choosing colours for a project I ask these key questions first:

What are the goals for the project?

This sounds like an obvious one, but it is easy to let your goals remain fuzzy or unstated. Fuzzy goals can make the process inefficient and long.
Tip for client:
Become clear before you begin. What do you want to happen? What result do you want?

What is the project’s key message?

It is most effective to have one clear message.
Tip for client: In order to support the key message with colour you need to know exactly what you want to communicate.

What are the important connotations within your field?

For example, when I am designing a project within the medical industry, red takes on a whole new weight and meaning than it would in the financial arena. Yellow and green can both be associated with sickness therefore are often avoided within the medical realm. Red is associated with blood, so it may or may not support the goals of a particular medical project depending on whether or not blood has a positive or negative association for it. Have you ever noticed how so many medical related materials are blue? Blue is associated with reliability and authority. White is associated with cleanliness, purity and clarity, so it also holds a very positive connotation in the medical realm. It is important for me to be aware of any meanings associated with particular colours in the context of your field in case there are meanings to avoid, embrace, or use strategically.

What feeling do you want the audience to experience when they come to contact with your project?

Do you want to reassure them? Provoke them? Arouse them? Invite them? Make them feel like you totally understand them? That you are one of them? Do you seek to calm them? Excite them? Incite compassion? Do you want to make them feel safe?
Tip for client: Be clear on what you envision your audience response to be.

What kind of ‘energy’ should the designed piece project?

Similar to the last question, but more focused on what you want to convey about your project. Is it exciting? Calming? Sophisticated? Childlike? Healthy? Somber? Is the project screaming? Is it whispering?
Tip for client: Write out a couple sentences using adjectives. Try them on until they feel accurate. Your brand consultant or experienced copywriter can help tremendously with this task.

Who is the target audience for your project?

Clinical trial centres? Children? Adults? Car enthusiasts? Doctors? Horseback riders? Mom’s of toddlers? Patients? Tip for client: You need to use different aspects of visual language for different audiences if you want to them to pay attention, understand your message and find it relevant to them. Different colours will mean different things to different audiences. Note: “Everyone” is not focused enough. Be specific.

Different colours will mean different things to different audiences.

What associations do you want the viewer to make?

Do you want to establish authority? Is the project associated with academia? Is it aimed toward women? Is it regarding pets? Should the project invoke patriotism, solidarity, or contentment? Should it relate to health? Car racing? Kitch? Is this project associated with any specific group, segment of society, or realm? This question is different from the “who’s your audience?” question. The question here is: with what will the viewer associate the project? We want to make it recognizable.

What context will this project exist in?

It is very important to be clear on the project’s context. Is it in Canada? Is it global? Is it in an urban or rural context? Will it exist in schools? Is it local or national? Is it a personal project or a public project? Context refers to the situation where the project will exist. It is the space — physical, social, cultural, mental or otherwise — that the project will move through and live in.

What colours are currently being used within the field?

Do some colours dominate the arena the project will operate in? Will it be an advantage or disadvantage to use those colours? Green dominates the environmental and sustainable products market. Everything is green. It is so overused that it has become a cliché. Perhaps a different colour would differentiate a project from the mountain green materials that already exists and therefore gain more attention. (Just sayin’.)

Are there any reasons to rule out any particular colours?

Design is, in part, about recognizing what not to do. If there are solid reasons for ruling some colours out, then I do it.
Tip for client: Note that — unless you are the audience — “I don’t like it” is not an appropriate reason to rule out a colour. The project is not aimed at you; it is aimed at your audience. Personal preferences should not come into play.

Achieve the gorgeous

Every project is unique with its own goals, messages, ideal audience, desired responses, meanings, peculiarities, and context. When making decisions about colour we — both client and designer — need to take all information and analysis at our disposal into consideration. All that information helps define the reasoning behind colour choices, makes way for the technical reasons for selecting colours, and guides the experienced designer’s colour sensibility.

In part two of How Designers Choose Colours, I discuss what I do with all of the information I have gathered, and how to reason out meaning, associations, and the use of design elements that impact the meaning and feeling of a project. The result is a colour palette that supports the client’s project’s goals, resonates with their target audiences, and achieves the gorgeous — not the garish.