Part 1: When it comes to selecting a color for a logo, in fact an entire brand, there are many factors to consider. Let’s take a look at most of them, basic color theory and psychology, some pseudoscience and technical considerations. A crash course in picking the best logo colors.

Going back over our blog, it seems we’ve been a little light in the color theory department. Oh sure, we’ve talked a lot about the technical aspects of color and your logo, but nothing too much in the “what colors should I use in my damn logo?” department. Color, while not an aspect in the early design stages of your logo (a logo “held together” by color is almost certainly doomed to fail,) is certainly important when it comes to using it. Color is supposed to invoke an emotional response, a feeling. A vibe if you will. In terms of a logo, that vibe is supposed to be about the company represented by it. Selection of logo colors can be arbitrary – the color of your first car or sports team. Sometimes there’s no reason at all – I was an early adopter of purple and teal as TLF’s corporate colors because I happened to like them together and purple is my wife’s fave color.

Mine is actually red.

Critical, but not that difficult

At times we select colors based on preconceived notions – most eco-friendly companies use green, the universally accepted color for the environment and earth. That’s not to say you should pick your logo and brand colors willy-nilly, you probably shouldn’t. While it’s not quite as easy as reading a pop psychology book for your million-dollar color palette, you certainly don’t need a degree in advanced quantum physics either. With a common-sense approach, and a look at what some of the “big boys” are doing, we should be able to make some sane color decisions for almost any logo you need to color up.

A thirty second crash-course in color theory

Color theory is an entire subject as to itself, way too long to cover in much depth in a blog post. There are a gazillion books and websites that cover it in far more detail that we could ever do here, but let’s take a quick overview of some very basic concepts. The most important is this – all color choices can be traced back to color wheels, which are exactly what they sound like – wheels made up of colors. The colors on these wheels are from where all other colors come from, as well as the relationships between these colors. Here’s the most basic.

The color wheel

basic-logo-color-wheelThe colors at the tip of the three arrows – red, blue and yellow – are known as primary colors and are the basic building blocks of color. Color DNA if you will. They’re called primary colors because you can’t create them from mixing any other colors, they just are. Then you have your secondary colors – orange, greens and purples (violets) – called that because they’re made by mixing various percentages of primary colors together. We can also split the color wheel into further colors (many of which won’t even show on your monitor, so subtle the differences) but the theory remains the same.

Color relationships

When it comes to designing logos and brands, color relationships are critical to the outcome. These relationships are based on where on the color wheel one color sits in relationship to others. There are many different types, but four major ones that are at the heart of most color combinations and the ones we’ll be dealing with.

Complementary & Split-complementary colors

complementary-split-complentary-colorsComplementary colors – because they set off its partner – are any two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. Think Christmas colors – red and green – for an obvious day-to-day example. Split-complementary colors are when you use colors that are exactly beside another color’s complementary. That reads more difficult than it is – the color wheel diagrams above explain it exactly.

Triadic and Analogous colors

triadic-analogous-colorsTriadic colors are exactly what they sound like – three colors that sit at the end of a triangle. Take the triangle that’s formed between the primary colors and spin it. Analogous colors are simply colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel (or very close) and create a fairly subtle – or analogous – color scheme. They almost always play nicely together but tonal ranges are critical (especially on the web) or you may not be able to see the differences between them.

Shades, tints and tones

If we view color pairs and trifectas as the macro, in terms of the individual colors involved there are micro-versions of those too. Known as “shades,” “tints” and “tones,” these colors are created when lightening a color (tint) or darkening a color (shade) by adding another black or white respectively. By adding grey we can mute colors and these are referred to as “tones.” This is how that concept looks like, using the colors from our wheel:color-shades-tines-tones-wheelOne thing to keep in mind, especially when using pairs of colors in your logo, is that while the couples may “work” from a color theory point of view, they may not work at all from a visual point of view. Which is what your logo is all about.

One color logos

When it comes to designing a logo, and with some tonal exceptions, most of our wheel colors will work as a one color design. Let’s take a look at some examples using a mock “awesome logo” and all the raw colors from our color wheel. The check marks represent colors that work, question marks are iffy and an ‘X’ is a color that should probably be avoided unless it’s paired with something else. Ready? Let’s take a look:raw-single-colorsYellow is almost universally a bad idea for a logo (especially in print) unless it’s bordered with another color, or used as a color field. It’s simply too bright. Yellow green is getting towards “too light” as well, though keep in mind we can always use a “shade” or a “tone” to darken it up. Or a keyline (outline) to box it in.

One color logos with black

Tonal differences notwithstanding, almost all our wheel colors will work with black in a pair.logo-colors-with-blackWith dark purple it’s almost a waste of colored ink – there’s not enough tonal difference (even worse on a website) – and the addition of black will not “save” yellow unless it’s an outline – canary yellow is almost always too bright to sit on a white background on its lonesome.

Logos and complementary colors

As we’ve already noted, while complementary colors may work in theory, it may be different in practice. While it is true that complementary colors “complement” each other, they can tend to vibrate visually when put together. In terms of logos that can translate to legibility problems if not handled correctly. Let’s take an “Awesome Logo” example and make it up with some complementary color pairs. Like before, check-marks mean that there’s no issue with a particular color combination or setup. A question mark means it’s sort of okay, but proceed with caution or we’ll have to do some workarounds. An ‘X’ generally means the color combination is unusable as is, and even workarounds may not be able to salvage the combination:logos-with-complementary-color-combinations
Violet and yellow, not bad (with the usual caveats about yellow.) One blue and orange, not bad, the other awful (unless we add a white keyline.) Now, remember our main example of day-to-day usage of red and green as the official complementary color pairing for Christmas? Turns out they’re awful colors to use in a logo:design-with-complementary-color-combinationsYep, pretty bad. Here’s the thing to keep in mind – if you’re going to use complementary colors in your logo, you may need to use a neutral color barrier – an outline or a keyline – to avoid disaster. We also need to know how our logo colors work on a black background, so we’ve done that exercise too (above right). Hit and miss to be sure. We could do this exercise for every type of color combination (we actually have) but we’ll stop here for now. By now you should be getting the idea that color choice is both science and art.

Color pollution

Another thing to keep in mind when using complementary colors together is that because they “vibrate,” they can also appear to change the colors around them – almost seeping into the color next to it. Take a look at this set of color pairs:logo-color-how-effect-other-colorThe blue is the same blue in every one – we only changed the orange. We can also do the reverse, changing only the blue and leaving the orange consistent:logo-color-can-effect-other-colorsWe could do that for every color combination (and have) but you get the idea – logo color combinations are anything but arbitrary and need to be chosen carefully with an eye to how the logo will be used and where it’s going to be seen. In the next day or two, we’ll finish up this crash course with a look at what all of these colors mean from a psychological point of view. You can check back or follow us on Twitter for the announcement on when the next installment is posted.

The graphics and charts used in this post are a preview of our upcoming release Power Colors – The Science Of Brand Colors and are copyright The Logo Factory Inc. All rights reserved.