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A pragmatic rainbow
Understanding brand color palettes in a workable way.
Humans have always been intrigued by colors. No matter their use, they will spark a debate. Colors are more important than most realize; they are practical decision-making tools that guide us through the world. We use them to tell the difference between fresh and rotten food, whether a flower is appropriate for an event, and even to identify a health issue.
When building a brand, the process of choosing colors gets more complex: many things are considered, and personal preference is no longer an essential criterion. To help with this decision-making process, we have selected the main aspects for you to keep in mind.
The brand concept is the starting point for the color story. Each project has a particular essence, which guides all design decisions. Some choose hyper-vibrant color schemes to show off their exciting products. Others prefer muted tones that might convey a peaceful ambiance to their audience. And there are even companies with primarily black-and-white combinations that work without elaborate hues, such as Notion.
Understanding the brand's identity is the key to success here. But before beginning the graphic design process, external elements must be considered. It goes beyond the company’s personality. Some things to consider can be whether the production will be digital or analog-centered, whether the region’s culture has color limits, and so on.
2. Market Suitability
To recognize brands, we make quick, subconscious judgments. Usually, this is determined only by color. To make it faster, people tend to assign stereotypes, so each market sector has evolved to have a representative hue. We can see it when visiting a shopping mall; if warm orange tones are visible, it is most likely that the food court is nearby. Unfortunately, it is quite ambitious to innovate in a conventional industry. And that is why we find many brands with slightly different variations on similar color palettes. Therefore, understanding common trends and practices in your sector can assist you in knowing how to bend or break the rules to make your business stand out.
3. Brand platforms and hierarchy
There is no rigid rule for how many colors are needed to construct a brand. Still, every business must have colors that can play different roles in each application—sometimes alone, sometimes complementing each other.
SaaS businesses’ visual identities tend to be more restricted to digital applications, accessibility, and usability parameters. Brands with a wide range of physical products may have color catalogs or even color libraries—such as Hermès and Farrow & Ball. The products and colors of their brands are closely connected and grow beyond a collection. Thus, more than thinking of a perfect hierarchy, a color creation, and expansion logic is imperative.
Therefore, each palette must have colors that have general functions. A comparison that seems to work is that colors work like the ingredients in a meal recipe:
The primary color(s) are the most striking ingredient. The dish will probably be named after it, and all components come in to accentuate or balance its flavor; So it must be chosen first.
The background colors are the accompaniment that supports the predominant flavors or helps to structure the plating. There is a list of common backgrounds: bread, rice, potato, and noodles. For colors, this is represented by those with a large amount of white or black in their composition, such as pure or colored grays, blacks, or whites. They can drastically change the perception of primary color, so they should be thought of as a second step.
Accent colors are the seasonings and garnishes. They determine the momentary mood of how the brand is presented punctually.
The number of colors for each function must be thought out following the brand concepts and, mainly, the practical implementation of the brand. Our suggestion is to start with one or two core colors for each function, then test and expand until you get the right amount.
Color is one design element that can easily become overwhelming. It can make something feel calm and comforting, then suddenly turn it upside down and make it chaotic. We recommend fine-tuning the chromatic proportions to avoid any color-induced stress. You can imagine a color palette as an orchestra, where each member must play in unison to create the desired symphony. Intense color combinations can be powerful and engaging. However, if they are not paired with more subdued colors, they can turn into noise. The 60-30-10 rule is a classic way to deal with this. It means that 60% of the usage proportion should be dedicated to the primary color, 30% to the secondary color, and 10% to the brand's accent color.
There is never one standalone tool that will resolve everyone’s needs when we talk about accessibility. Color is a versatile design device to engage the crowd. And for it to be enjoyed by as many users as possible, it’s essential to follow some guidelines.
Contrast is fundamental when thinking about accessibility. According to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), to make a body of text accessible, it needs to have a color contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1, reaching level AA. Numerous tools are available to ensure that this contrast standard is applied to all graphic elements. Some of them are Accessible Brand Colors, Colorable, Shadowlord, Colour Contrast Analyser (CCA), or Figma’s plugins such as A11y, Able, and Stark.
Be mindful when using color as the only way to communicate information. Around 350 million people are colorblind. 1 in 8 men and 1 in 200 women live with colorblindness, the most common types being red-green and blue-yellow. Because of that, color alone is not a reliable way to convey meaning. A well-written copy and complementing shapes are great allies to make the user experience easier. Combining that with testing the design in grayscale and paying more attention to smaller elements will help the product be understood by anyone.
If you need more help analyzing a business color palette, consider the following questions:
Does the color scheme reflect the brand’s personality?
Does it work with the medium of the company’s applications? Are they made for digital or analogic purposes?
Does it make sense within the culture of the region?
Are they recognizable within the market sector?
Does it have a clear hierarchy?
Is it proportionally pleasant?
Can all users have a similar experience with the color scheme?
Colors are versatile. They can show abstraction and indicate practical logic at the same time. They are a direct link to our emotions, and we should manage them with care. Strong brands understand this chromatic power and use it as a strategic device. So, don’t let your colors fade into the background; let them be seen.
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