How to choose the perfect brand colour palette

example of perfect brand colour palette based on the colour wheel

By Nine Blaess | 03:30 min

In this article
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    Colours increase brand recognition by up to 80 %.[1] Colours help us retain information by directing our attention and evoking emotions and memories. But what does it take to create the perfect brand colour palette?

    Before you can decide on a representative colour palette for your organisation, you should understand a little more about the meaning of colours.

    The meaning of colour

    Colours are associated with different meanings that have been established over time. Be it through evolution or culture, for example, red as a warning colour or white as a colour for weddings in Western cultures.

    Nowadays, any brand can reach a global audience. It is worth understanding the meaning of a particular colour in different cultures before committing to it in your branding.

    David McCanless’s infographic[2] illustrates the cultural differences in the meaning of colours well. For example, the colour associated with happiness is:

    • red in Asian culture,
    • white in Native American culture,
    • green in Hindu culture,
    • and yellow in Western and American culture.

    How to create your own brand colour palette

    How many colours does a brand need?

    A colour palette for any brand rarely consists of a single colour alone. The trick is to combine colours that complement each other to create a harmonious colour palette.

    There are no rules on how many colours you should use. As a rough guide, you consider including the following colours:

    • a neutral light tone for backgrounds
    • a neutral dark tone for typography
    • primary colour(s) for brand recognition
    • accent colour(s) for drawing attention

    Colour harmonies

    Analogous colour scheme

    Three colours are next to each other on the colour wheel.

    Explanation of the analogue colour scheme, with three adjacent colours in the colour wheel
    Analogous colour scheme

    Complementary colour scheme

    Two colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel.

    Explanation of the complementary colour scheme where two colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel
    Complementary colour scheme

    Split-complementary colour scheme

    As a variation of the complementary colour scheme, the split-complementary scheme introduces a third colour.

    explanation of the split-Complementary colour scheme showing three colours spread across the colour wheel
    Split-complementary colour scheme

    Triadic colour scheme

    Three colours are evenly spaced around the colour wheel.

    explanation of the triadic colour scheme showing three colours equally spread across the colour wheel
    Triadic colour scheme

    Square colour scheme

    Four colours are evenly spaced around the colour wheel.

    explanation of the square colour scheme showing four colours spread out equally on the colour wheel
    Square colour scheme

    Rectangular colour scheme

    Similar to the square colour scheme, four colours are spaced around the colour wheel, but not evenly.

    Explanation of the rectangular colour scheme by showing 4 colours spread out on the colour wheel
    Rectangular colour scheme

    Tints, shades and tones of colour

    In addition to colour harmonies, you can also work with Tints (lightening), Shades (darkening) and Tones (a mix of both) to decrease the intensity of some or all colours in your brand colour palette.

    Tint

    A tint is the blend of a pure colour with white to increase its brightness.

    Explanation of a colour tint from high to low using the example of red
    Tints

    Shade

    A shade is the blend of a pure colour with black to darken the colour.

    Explanation of colour shade using the example of red
    Shades

    Tone

    A tone is created when a pure colour is mixed with 50% grey, or simultaneously lightened and darkened.

    Explanation of a colour tone using the example of red
    Tones

    Tints, shades and tones, all have an effect on the saturation of the colour. In all figures above, the saturation ranges from 0 to 100, from left to right.

    The ratio of brand colours

    A great colour palette alone is not enough. If you use all colours in equal proportions, you risk making your branding look like a children’s birthday party. If that’s not your intention, try to use colours in uneven proportions.

    In a webinar with illustrator Greg Gunn, he mentioned a good rule of thumb. Use your brand colours in roughly the following ratio[3]:

    • primary colour 60%
    • secondary colour 30%
    • accent colour 10%

    Even though most brands do not use exactly three colours, this is a good starting point.

    Colours used in different ratio for branding
    Proportion of colour in branding

    Colours and function

    You can also consider assigning a specific purpose to certain colours in your visual identity. For example, you can use different colours to identify subject areas, as AdAge has done.

    photo from the book 'identity designed' by David Airey that shows the Ad Age branding
    Use of colour in AdAge branding, source: Identity designed by David Airey

    Online tools for selecting colour harmonies

    Finding the perfect colour palette can be tough if you don’t know where to start. There are tools that can help you design harmonious colour palettes. These are my favourites:

    • Pinterest is a good source of inspiration. You can search for colour palettes, illustrations or photography as colour references.
    • At Adobe Color you can find examples of many successful colour palettes, or create your own. You can also upload a reference to extract colours from and export the result in a variety of formats.
    • Coolors is my personal favourite. The playful interface encourages experimentation. This also creates unusual colour combinations.
    • With the Material Color Tool you can test colours in simple user interfaces. You can also test the legibility on different backgrounds.

    Although all these rules are a good starting point, don’t be afraid to break them. There are more products and companies on the market today than ever before. Standing out is difficult, and surprising colour combinations can be one way to do so. The visual identity design for Dropbox is a good example. 

    Dropbox use of colour in branding as example
    Use of colour in Dropbox branding[4]

    I hope this article was helpful, and you were able to take away some tips on how to create the perfect colour palette for your brand.

    If you have input on this topic, I would love to hear from you. 

     

    References

    [1] Various sources state that this is a finding by a study of the University of Loyola. I couldn’t trace back the original source. The finding was first mentioned by Prof. Morton, “Why colours matter”, 2013

    [2] Infographic by David McCanless on Information Made Beautiful

    [3] “Color Q&A” webinar by Greg Gunn, The Futur (2020)

    [4] Image Source: Dropbox Brand Guidelines (2017), Page 8, Color Pairings

    For a deeper understanding, consider reading “The Psychology of Colour Influences Consumers’ Buying Behaviour –A Diagnostic Study” by J Suresh Kumar

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