Business, Education

How to use and choose color for design work: the 5 secret clues

Color for design

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This guide outlines the 5 secret clues that make it easy to choose and use the right color for design work of any kind.

As harsh as it may seem, most professional designers are, for better or worse, not fine artists. We don’t enjoy the liberty to just make design choices based on what appeals most to our emotions at any given time of day. Our design work has to be aesthetically pleasing, but it also needs to serve a purpose. Designers critically consider the directions that their work takes to ensure it succeeds in meeting the brief, and so the design can often be more a question of solving challenges than creating art.

How to choose color for design

Picking the right colors for a design template or logo is never easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to give up and choose color for design out of a hat. Whenever we pick a particular color, we need to have a logical argument ready to justify that choice. So let’s look at five considerations that can inform our color choices and ensure we’re producing the most astute work possible. Also read our guide to Color Theory and the Color Theory Wheel

1. Clients

First and foremost to choose color for design successfully, our clients need to be happy with the colors we’ve chosen. This challenge can be easier than it first appears since much of the time this boils down to working within a color palette that the client doesn’t object to outright.

There ought to be room for maneuver to choose color for design when discussing work with stakeholders: you need to appreciate where their preferences are coming from, but you also need to be prepared to respectfully argue your corner if they’re opposed to a color that you feel would be perfect in the particular context. 

It’s also important to take a firm’s history into consideration to choose color for design when accepting a commission. That history can help inform your design, especially if you’re working on brand materials that could honor the company’s legacy. Every brand story is unique, and your work has to reflect that since it’s what will set the firm apart in the market.

2. Competitors

A business doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it operates within a marketplace. When trying to establish what colors to use, look at what insights the competitors’ design choices can offer. We’re not doing this to gain inspiration. Rather, we’re using this information to know what choices to avoid when you choose color for design.

One of the reasons you’ve been hired is to create design work that will make your clients stand out from the competition. A client doesn’t want their color palette to be mistaken for one of their competitors, so when you choose color for design, you need to use a palette that’s distinctive enough to set your design apart in the immediate marketplace. 

3. Psychology of color for design

Psychology may not be a discipline that we as designers are 100% comfortable with, but the millions spent on market research into psychology can’t be wrong, can it? Part of the reason colors are so vital to the power of design is down to the raw emotional responses they can generate, often on a subconscious level.

You don’t need a background in fine arts to understand why warning signs usually come in red and black colors, for example. Nor to understand why pastels help set a calmer, more whimsical tone to a piece of design work. 

Think about how you might choose color for design in email marketing: an urgent call to action when marketing something like health insurance will use shades of blue as they’re associated with medicine, whereas an email promoting a sale of bedroom furnishings is likely to employ a warmer color palette to evoke comfort.

Maybe you’ve instinctively picked out colors that really suited a particular project; but is that down to your design expertise? Or are you really just in touch with your psychological instincts when you choose color for design? Focus groups and psychological studies are more useful than market trends in this area, so prioritize them when doing your research for a project.

4. Cultural influences on color for design

Culture can be a difficult concept to quantify, but it nonetheless wields a huge influence on how your work will be appreciated. You need to generate cultural insights on your target audience, but you also need to marry this with an appreciation of the industrial culture that your client operates within. The cultural response to your design could be based on many factors, including your target audience’s:

  • Ethnic background
  • Country of origin
  • Current location
  • Gender orientation
  • Sexual orientation

We’re not trying to unduly pigeonhole audiences when we choose color for design, but we are looking to find inspiration for colors that will resonate with the cultural backgrounds of the target demographic. It’s important to research these cultural considerations thoroughly so that your work has a better chance of being received as appreciative rather than disingenuous.

Like any aspect of marketing, design work should speak to people’s desires to become a better version of their current selves, and authentic cultural research can show you how to engage those feelings through your choice of color for design .

5. Audience

Last but by no means least, we have to look at our target audience. Of course, the nature of your client’s business will have a huge bearing on this: if you’re working on a design targeted at the broadest possible swathe of the general public, such as a restaurant hoarding or billboard advertisement, you want to fall back on promoting your client’s brand rather than focusing on a specific audience niche.

If you’re struggling to find insights into your audience, check out a competing company that’s going after the same market, and see how they’ve chosen to respond to these challenges with color for design. For more specific audiences, try and find some focus group feedback to give you clues as to what does and doesn’t work, since research will be key to finding colors that specific audiences will positively respond to.

Final Thoughts

If your design work takes all these considerations into account when you choose color for design, you’re likely to produce stronger work that resonates more with audiences. In addition to making great work that will satisfy your clients, navigating these concerns will also make you more prepared to advocate for your work and negotiate differences with stakeholders when you feel the work will benefit from standing your ground.