The good news is, you don’t need to know anything about colour theory to choose colours for your business card or website or whatever creative endeavor you’re about to embark on.
The bad news is, I’m Canadian and will be spelling the word “colour” incorrectly (by U.S. standards) for the remainder of this article. Even my text editor doesn’t like it. Little red lines keep showing up everywhere – the universal symbol for, “You made a mistake, idiot”.
Or is it universal? This is the challenge for colour theorists because colours have very different meanings to different cultures. Although the colour red is associated with blood, death and passion in Western culture, the same colour is aligned with prosperity and happiness in China. Considering there are 1.3 billion Chinese people (as of 2011) that’s a lot of people you don’t want to argue with.
You could spend the next year immersing yourself in the history of colour, combing through research documents in an attempt to discover the perfect shade of green for your website. But I suspect you don’t have that much time so I’ve outlined three simple steps you can take to make colour selection a little less painful.
1. Figure out who your market is and what they like.
Knowing your market is the single most important step as a business owner. Because it’s the first step in any process you may have already determined who your market is and what they like. This is a fairly simple task if you already are your ideal client because you know what you like, where you hang out and what websites you visit often. Otherwise, you need to get in touch with people in your market and find out what kinds of products and services they are already using.
2. Find examples of existing design work that sets the mood.
For those who don’t have a lot of experience with colour I recommend stealing someone else’s colour palette. In fine art we call this appropriation meaning “the use of borrowed elements in the creation of a new work”, according to the Tate Glossary. Essentially, you want to find other examples of websites or print materials that you feel set the mood you’d like to create and then copy them. There is absolutely nothing unlawful about this and designers do it all the time, we call it finding inspiration.
Using the information from step 1, look at designs your market is already attracted to. Instead of trying to choose individual colours your audience will find “calming” or “happy” or “compels them to spend lots of money” look at your project as a whole and find a complete colour solution that send the right message for your product or service.
There are so many websites and existing marketing materials out there that almost every colour combination possible has been explored. Use this to your advantage. Keep searching until you find at least one or two examples that excite you.
3. Determine the exact colour values.
The inspiration you’ve just found isn’t much use if you’re not sure what the colours are. If you are working with a designer this part is easy, just send them the samples and they’ll determine the colours for you. That’s why we get paid the big bucks (not really). If you’re on your own there are a few methods you can use depending on the source of your sample and what you’re going to do with it.
If your source is web-based you might want to make your life easier and download a free colour dropper tool like Color Cop. For the more technically minded you can open the code inspector in your browser to find the web colour without downloading anything but this doesn’t work for images, only background and text colours etc. You also need to know what you’re looking for and on some websites that can become a needle-in-a-haystack experience.
For print samples your fastest option is to simply get on your computer and try to replicate the colours by playing around in the application of your choice. When you find something close enough consider yourself done. For now.
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One of my self-proclaimed areas of expertise happens to be colour so if you’re really struggling and want some help you can comment below or send me a message on the contact page.
For those who don’t know where to look for inspiration, here are a few starting points:
It was brought to my attention by one reader that an Android app exists for colour identification. If you’re on an iPhone there are just too many apps to list but this article might help you find one whatever your budget. Keep in mind these apps may not be accurate and you might end up spending more time playing with them than you need to.