4 ways to master colour in logo design

Colour is a universal language in design. It can help convey a brand’s personality, create market standout, and evoke an emotional response.

If you’re going to apply colour theory to your creative process, it pays to brush up on what that actually means in practice. We covered some of the basics of colour theory in our ultimate guide to logo design, including how to develop colour harmonies using the colour wheel.

The colour wheel is a very basic way of looking at colour, but can be a useful way to judge harmonious colour combinations

This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. The psychology of colour goes far beyond what’s pleasing to the eye, and colour has its practical considerations too when applying a logo design across different brand touchpoints.

Read on to discover four ways to work with colour more effectively in your logo design work… 

01. Understand colour theory 

When it comes to logo design and branding, the choice of a colour can have great significance, and aesthetics are not necessarily top of the list. It’s important to understand the distinction between colour psychology and colour symbolism, which again is different from any given individual’s associations with a colour.

Think of it in terms of broadness of relevance. Personal associations can be more of a hurdle to overcome than a useful reference point, particularly when a client’s preference comes into play. In the grand scheme of things, they’re irrelevant.

Colour symbolism is the next stage up, and takes cultural touchpoints into account: red symbolises wealth and good fortune in China, for instance, while white is used to represent death. This can be useful for brands on a national or regional scale, but not globally. Coca-Cola is sold in China, but it’s highly improbable that its red-and-white scheme is designed to convey a balance between money and death.

The Partners’ Investec Journal project plays on the Chinese association of red with wealth and good fortune

Colour psychology goes much deeper, and taps into our responses to colour on an unconscious level. In very broad-brush terms, red is a visceral, physical colour compared to the cooler, more intellectual blue. Yellow is bright, energetic and emotional, while green is more harmonious, natural and balanced.

All of these associations are nuanced, have an array of both positive and negative connotations depending on shades, tints and tones, and can also incorporate all manner of cultural and personal symbolism. But the essence of their psychological effects is universal enough to be considered as part of any logo design process.

02. Take a more subtle approach  

There are many different approaches when it comes to choosing a colour scheme for a brand, taking into account everything from basic colour wheel dynamics to complex cultural and psychological associations.

Colour psychologist Angela Wright has worked out a Colour Affects System, in which all shades, tints and tones of colour can be categorised into one of four ‘tonal groups’. Colour schemes that draw from within the same group will be more harmonious.

Group one: Virgin’s use of bright scarlet befits its playful, youth-oriented brand

Group one colours are clear, delicate and warm, and contain no black. These include scarlet, coral, sky blue or peach. They are friendly, playful and optimistic, so ideal for youth brands, but on the flip-side can be seen as flippant, or may lack gravitas.

Group two: Tiffany & Co’s subtle and delicate robin egg blue feels very upmarket

Group two colours contain more grey, and are more subtle as a result, such as maroon, sage or lavender. While these colours can convey style, grace and elegance for more upmarket brands, they can also come across as detached and elitist and are not commonly used in logo design.

Group three: Shell combines tomato red with a warm, ochre yellow to convey strength

Group three colours are warm, intense and fiery, and are blended with black, such as tomato red, burnt orange, olive or aubergine. They are earthy and substantial, and frequently used to convey strength and integrity, but run the risk of appearing old-fashioned or predictable.

Group four: Apple’s extensive use of black and white feels modern, slick and confident

Finally, group four colours are clear, strong and unsubtle, such as black, white, magenta or lemon yellow. They convey values of confidence, efficiency and modernity, and are therefore idea for future-thinking tech brands, but may come across as expensive, materialistic and cold.

Issue 266 of Computer Arts magazine, on sale 28 April, explores colour psychology in branding in more depth, including how the Colour Affects System works in practice. 

03. Put colour in its market context

Picking the right colour for any given brand isn’t just about its psychological and cultural associations, of course - it’s also about its competitive set, and wider sector trends. 

For instance, two brands in totally unrelated sectors could both strive to use colour to convey trustworthiness, or playfulness, or elegance. But if their direct competitor uses the same shade for the same reasons, stand-out and differentiation immediately becomes an issue.

Truly ‘owning’ a brand colour is the holy grail of branding, and these days it’s not just about carving out space on the high street or supermarket shelf. How a logo design stands out in app form on a smartphone screen is increasingly important.

In a sector dominated by reds, blues and other bold primaries, easyJet brings a splash of orange

There are examples of brands eschewing market trends and punching through the noise with a totally left-field brand colour that communicates their unique values without blindly following the crowd: easyJet brought an unconventional  splash of orange to the airline industry, for instance, while Tango uses black for an irreverent twist on the fizzy fruit drink sector. 

Although Tango uses classic colours to identify flavours, the logo and can design use unconventional black

But such bold moves are not always necessary. Exclusive use of a core primary, secondary or tertiary colour is an unwinnable battle in a crowded marketplace, but by considering the subtleties of colour association, breaking down the basic colour wheel into the millions of shade, tints and tones that the human eye can perceive, ownership becomes much more attainable.

04. Consider how colour is displayed 

Once your brand colours are chosen, it’s worth brushing up on the rules of colour, in terms of how it is generated and displayed in practical terms – particularly when it comes to assembling brand guidelines.

Consider what you can achieve using the basic additive (RGB, for screen) and subtractive (CMYK, for print) colour models, but also consider manipulating colour using HSB (hue, saturation and brightness) or LAB (which balances luminance with the chromatic values A and B, where ‘A’ ranges from green to red, and ‘B’ from blue to yellow).

Synonymous with print and digital respectively, the CMYK and RGB colour modes are familiar to designers everywhere

RGB and CMYK define colour in a mechanical way, and the actual manner in which it’s displayed depends on various factors, such as the colour profile of a device. HSB is more intuitive, and defines colour in a more descriptive way in the context of a colour wheel.

Meanwhile, LAB is exceptionally accurate, and not device-specific as it’s based around the perception of colour rather than just its mathematic definition. This is particularly important when it comes to accurate colour-matching across multiple platforms.

The HSB and LAB colour modes are much more precise, and are based on how colour is described and perceived

Of course, if you choose to define the brand in print using one or more Pantone shades, totally accurate colour-matching on digital devices will be nigh-on impossible, so take this into consideration.

Enter your best branding to the Brand Impact Awards

If you’ve already mastered the craft of branding, submit your best work to Computer Arts’ international awards scheme. 

The Brand Impact Awards celebrate the very best branding work from all around the world. Deadline for 2017 entries is 9 June. Find out more at www.brandimpactawards.com.