Color Theory For Graphic Designers

The Theory Behind Designing For Great Color

“Make it pretty.”

If you have ever worked as a graphic designer, you have probably heard that statement more than once. Don’t misunderstand. A big part of a graphic designer’s job is to create an image or project that is visually appealing. But there isn’t a “make it pretty” button that makes that happen.

Perhaps the most important variable in the decisions that a designer makes is choice of color.

Color Theory: Color Is A Feeling

Color is much more than a visual observation. It’s science and math and – maybe most significantly – emotion. That’s something every graphic designer needs to understand about basic color theory. Color is a feeling and that feeling often results in action.

With every design, we are trying to attract attention, convey an idea and sell a product or service. The colors used in that design are relevant to the message we are trying to send.

Oftentimes, we choose those colors or attributes of those colors without much thought. If given a choice between a bright yellow and a dull brown, we know that the bright yellow will likely garner more attention.

We have also been trained as human beings to attribute certain words or meanings to different colors. We run into obvious examples of this every day of our lives.

Why are most school buses yellow? It’s because yellow represents caution. Therefore, we automatically regard that vehicle with hesitancy since it could stop at any time to allow children to board or exit the bus.

This same philosophy applies to just about every roadway experience we encounter. From brake lights to stop signs to traffic lights, we associate the color red with stopping or warning. Meanwhile, green roadway signs point us in the right direction and green traffic lights allow us to proceed to our destinations. But our color association extends beyond the roadways.

When you walk into your favorite grocery store, what do you see? If it’s like most grocery stores, there is probably a produce department, deli, bakery and meat counter on one end while aisles and aisles of brightly colored pre-packaged food, condiments, beverages, etc. fill out the rest of the space.

What color is the flooring in that store? It wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve never noticed. You’re not at the store to buy the floor, are you? You’re not supposed to notice it. It’s probably a subtle color such as a light cream or tan tile flooring. Whatever color it is, it was chosen so as not to distract you from the products on the shelves.

Since we understand the relationship between color, feeling and conveying ideas, we even use color in everyday language. For instance, if someone tells you that you’ve been “given the green light” on a project, you instinctively know that you can go forth and proceed. If someone tells you that they are “feeling blue,” you liken that to mean that they are sad or depressed.

As a human, you have undoubtedly experienced the feelings and actions that colors can provoke. As a designer, you have to understand those associations so that you can choosecolors appropriately.

Don’t Get Lost In The Language

While color is used to convey certain ideas in language, it’s almost impossible to determine and recognize a specific color in words.

We can generally agree that grass is green and the sky is blue much of the time. But the blue sky color you see in your mind’s eye is most definitely very different than someone else’s perception of the sky.

There are many descriptions like “pretty” that designers try to discern in their designs. “Make it pretty” isn’t much to go on since “pretty” can mean different things to different people. If someone asks you to make an image brighter or warmer, do you even know what that means?

Yes, we can generally agree on hues of color; i.e. red, green, blue, orange, etc. But describing specific colors with only words will rarely result in an agreeable outcome and, if it does, it will likely take a very long time.

Color is a feeling, but it is best described and compared mathematically. But first, you must understand the science behind the color.

Setting Yourself Up For Success

When you understand the basics of color theory, there are some things a designer can do to set up for success.

First, take a look at your environment in which you do color critical work. Is your work station in a spot where windows can produce a glare on your computer screen? Are the walls and flooring neutral in color? What kind of lighting is in your work space?

Once you’ve set up the optimal work environment, you can turn your attention to the software and tools that will help you achieve consistent and quality color in your projects.

First, determine what kind of monitor you’ll be using to view critical color. Consider purchasing a higher-end standalone monitor. You might also want to install a shade hood to keep out extraneous light.

Next, you will want to decide which color management settings to use in your design software – and hopefully the printer’s RIP. Most designers know that files can be assigned and converted to different profiles such as RGB and CMYK in software programs. What some designers don’t know is that their software’s color management settings might be set to a default color space that is actually limiting their color quality.

Most design software programs have similar color management setting menus. For instance, in the Adobe Creative Cloud and Corel Draw programs, you can change these settings by going to Edit and then Color Settings.

Out of the box, you may notice some settings are defaulted to an older color space such as U.S. Web Coated SWOP. That profile is more than 20 years old and also very small. By changing just that setting to GRACol2006, you are opening up your color space and will be able to hit more colors.

It’s also not a bad idea to invest in a measurement device. Depending on your needs, you may only need an inexpensive colorimeter to compare colors and determine Delta E. But you may also want a spectrophotometer that is more accurate and allows you to calibrate your monitor from time to time.

Consistency Is Key

Once you have a strategy in place, you can communicate it to your clients, print operators, colleagues and especially fellow designers.

Explain your facility’s commitment to color quality, but also what limitations there might be. Help restructure the work environment for viewing color. Advise those working on similar projects to set their color management parameters in their software programs and RIPs to the same profile and/or color space. You will find that consistency is key in color management.

When it comes to color, it’s important to know a little about everything; but you don’t need to know everything about everything. But if you can find consistency in your approach, you’ll have a better chance of having a successful color strategy that results in consistent color.

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