Limit Your Colors, Not Your Impact

by Rod Sawatsky


Color theory is a complex field of study with a lot of science about optics and neuron mumbo jumbo (too technical for most mortals). Along with the science comes a great deal of subjective truth based on culture and associations. To my eye, some of the textile designs I grew up seeing in the Congo (DRC) were wild and crazy…at least they would be if I wore them.

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This humble article doesn’t pretend to illumine the whole path toward effective use of color. But that doesn’t mean we can’t nail a few colored tails on the donkey somewhere close to where they belong. There are a few key pitfalls with color that seem to resurface with surprising consistency. In this post, I hope to you consider the value of limiting color.

It’s easy to think, “it’s the Internet, colors are free!” In other words, you don’t have to pay more for all the colors of the rainbow, so let’s put them to work for us and make our ads POP. Right? Well, not so much. That’s the equivalent of mixing a song in a studio and turning up all the volumes until all you hear is distortion. In advertising, there is always a brand to consider and a clear message that needs to be delivered without distraction.

Consider these points and examples when selecting your colors for a marketing campaign:

  1. Brand Colors. Most logos or brands come with a certain color palette already. If there isn’t a style guide specifying approved colors, then there is at least the logo to refer to. This is the most natural starting point for your palette and will help establish consistency.
  2. Pick 2 to 4 colors for your palette. There should be a clear dominant color and one or two other colors to either broaden the main color’s range or bring contrast.
  3. Stick to a temperature range. As in, pick all warm colors or pick all cool colors. Warm colors are reds, oranges, yellows, browns, etc. Cool colors are blues and purples. Greens are fairly neutral and can lean to one side or the other. Picking your colors in a temperature range close to an approved brand color will work together more consistently.
  4. Consider a complimentary color as an accent. A complimentary color is a color opposite on the color wheel to your main color. It provides contrast and gives your eye a happy balance to wander in. However, use this accent conservatively so it doesn’t confuse the main brand color.
  5. Repurpose photography to match the brand colors. Broad color field overlays are one way to accomplish this. Another would be to convert images to grayscale or duotones built with brand colors. With a little Photoshop work you can change the color of a person’s clothes to match your palette.
  6. Establish vibrancy through contrast. To make your message stand out and grab attention you don’t need a lot of colors. What you need is sufficient contrast to make the words or image important to you stand out.

Consider these examples that use the above principles to establish a clear message and impact with color.

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The next time you’re up against the proverbial white page and wondering what to do with color, consider limiting your palette and simplifying your message. It is a proven strategy for harmonizing your piece and boosting impact.

Here’s a fun color exercise to test your ability to pick the right color from the crowd (hard to do with subtle shades).  And, two useful articles about color:–webdesign-1437

Good luck!

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