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Logo design: All you need to know

The psychology of colour is fascinating, and plays a pivotal role in building a brand association, whether you’re crafting a symbol-based logo or a wordmark. 

Here are five logo design tips to help you employ colour theory in your work.

01. Understand the colour wheel

At the core of colour theory is the colour wheel, an essential tool for combining colours in different ways that was originally sketched by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. The most common version features 12 colours, based on the ‘RYB’ colour model.

Here, the primary colours are red, yellow and blue, with the three secondary colours (green, orange and purple) created by mixing two primary colours. Finally, six tertiary colours are created by mixing primary and secondary colours.

Logo design: Colour wheel

The colour wheel basics explained

There are six main techniques for creating pleasing colour harmonies using a colour wheel. Complementary colours are opposite each other on the wheel (such as red and green, eg. Heineken, or blue and yellow, eg. IKEA, which tweaked its logo design very slightly in 2019); analogous colours sit next to each other on the wheel; and triadic colours involve three evenly spaced colours around the wheel.

Ikea logo

IKEA’s complementary colour scheme is instantly recognisable, and makes for a punchy, high-contrast logo design (Image credit: Ikea )

Other schemes include split-complementary (which uses two colours adjacent to the main base colour’s complement); rectangular, a four-colour scheme based around two complementary pairs; and finally square, another four-colour scheme where, unlike rectangular, the colours are evenly spaced.

02. Manage colour schemes carefully

Many of the colour harmonies above require careful management in order to be successful in a logo design, and colours often shouldn’t be used in equal quantities.

Complementary colours can be too intense if used excessively, for instance, while analogous schemes have the opposite problem: they are gentle and pleasing to the eye, but lacking in contrast – and you should select a dominant colour, using the others as support and accent colours only.

Logo design: BP

Landor’s rebrand of BP attracted its fair share of controversy for ‘greenwashing’ the oil giant, but one thing’s for sure: it’s a great example of an analogous colour scheme

Triadic schemes are much more vibrant, but again pick one dominant colour of the three. For beginners, it’s often safest to opt for a split-complementary scheme as there’s a good natural balance of contrast and harmony.

Rectangular and square schemes are both relatively versatile given the extra colour to play with, but again one should always be dominant – and you should pay particular attention to the balance between warm and cool colours.

03. Use colour to control mood

Logo design: McDonalds

Like BP, McDonald's is an example of an analogous colour scheme – but on the warm side of the spectrum, to invoke feelings of happiness and fun

Your choice of colour palette can make or break a logo design, partly for simple aesthetic reasons, but also because of the psychological associations of colours – which we touched on briefly as part of the Bauhaus theory on the previous page.

On a simple level, colours on the warm side of the spectrum – such as red and yellow – are bold, uplifting and energetic, while their cooler counterparts, blue and green, exude calmness and feel more reserved. 

This is particularly relevant when it comes to branding: on an emotional level, in terms of how consumers feel when they look at it; but also on a practical level, in terms of market standout.

Read our designer’s guide to using colour in branding for more on this.

Logo design: Cadbury

Sometimes ownership of a colour becomes a legal matter, as in Cadbury’s battles with Nestle to protect the use of its distinctive shade of purple

A brand 'owning' a colour in its sector can provide an enormous competitive advantage, achieving instant recognition – in some cases even without a logo, or even a mention of its name.

Of course, owning an entire colour isn't easy, and it goes way beyond the logo design: skilful planning and execution is needed across all elements of the brand and its advertising. 

Depending on the popularity and market saturation of a particular colour, we could be talking as specific as an officially registered Pantone shade (such as Cadbury 2685C), or as general as being the only brand in competitive set to use that colour.

In order to achieve colour-based standout in any given market sector, the first step is to understand what the prevailing trends are – blue, for instance, is commonly used in the financial sector, while green is frequently found in branding for environmental organisations. Sometimes it pays to avoid the obvious.

05. Don’t forget black and white

Logo design: Woolmark

Designed by Italian graphic artist Francesco Saroglia, the Woolmark logo is a triumph of monochromatic design, and is lauded as one of the greatest logos of all time

After all this talk of colour, it’s easy to forget that some of the world’s most iconic logo designs are purely monochrome, and make powerful use of the stark contrast that this palette affords.

Of course, even if your primary logo design is in glorious technicolour, it still needs to work effectively in black-and-white for different applications. 

If your logo design uses colour to convey meaning, think about how you can reflect that meaning when the colour is removed. Sometimes this may mean changing the contrast between different elements of your design so that they still convey meaning when reproduced in monotone.

Next page: Putting your logo design into practice