Colours are pretty powerful. They can trigger certain emotions, memories or associations and this helps to makes them a key part of your branding. Seeing a glimpse of a particular shade of green on a sign as you walk along a street can make you think of Starbucks, before you’ve seen the logo or the name. The right combination of colours on packaging, on a label, on a website, on an ad can instantly cause us to bring a brand to mind. This means choosing the colour palette for your brand identity is something you want to get right.
Here’s my advice on how you can come up with a brand identity colour palette that perfectly suits your business and helps you create a strong visual brand experience for your target audience.
“Blue means trust” and other oversimplified ideas
A quick search for information on colour psychology or what brand colours mean will bring up a tonne of infographics and posts that try to assign very narrow attributes to each colour. They’ll say things like, “white equals purity”, “yellow is happy”, and “purple is regal”.
Look, they’re not wrong. I just think they oversimplify colour psychology to the point of not really being very useful. Assigning any one emotion or association to a colour, as if it was a fact that would hold up in any circumstance doesn’t really work. Take, for example, a colour like red which might mean passion, danger or luck depending on who you ask.
To know what a colour means to someone, you’d have to consider context, as well as personal preferences, past experiences, and cultural upbringing. That means the same colour can mean a lot of different things.
Choosing the right colours is about meeting expectations
The lesson about branding that I always go back to and repeat over and over, is that it’s all about your audience. It’s about understanding exactly who your ideal client is and how you can create a brand that is going to appeal to them best of all.
So, what does that mean when it comes to choosing your brand identity colour palette? Well, the most important consideration is to match the expectations of your audience. You use your brand colours to communicate to your audience that they are in the right place. The colours will let them know what kind of personality and tone you’re setting in your business, so they are able to gain the experience you want to create for them.
So, if your ideal client is a stressed-out parent who’s looking for a way to help their baby sleep through the night, you probably want to stick to a colour palette that looks and feels soothing and calming. Going with bright, neon colours will probably send the wrong message. Pale blues and purples, on the other hand, is likely to be a lot closer to what your ideal clients expect. That kind of colour palette better matches a brand message about relieving sleep-related stress.
Starting with your brand moodboard
In design, moodboards are a great way to establish the overall sense of the tone and feel you want to create for your brand identity. Curating a collection of images that match the sort of experience you want to build helps to point you in the right aesthetic direction.
When creating your moodboard, you should select images that fit well together. By that I mean images that are all communicating the same kind of emotion and follow an overall theme. Pick each image by considering the layout as a whole. All your images should complement each other.
By doing this, you should start to notice that a certain colour tone suits your brand. You might notice specific colours that appear over and over. At the very least, you should be able to get a certain “vibe”. Maybe the palette is neutral. Maybe it’s mostly black and white. There could be lots of metallic tones, or really vibrant and saturated tones.
It’s good to keep referring back to your moodboard as you continue to design. Later on, once you’ve picked your brand colours, go back to your moodboard and make sure the colours match the images you’ve chosen to represent the brand and brand identity you want to create.
Related post: How to create a moodboard for your new brand identity
Setting logo design colours
When creating a new brand identity, I always design logos in black and white first and recommend all designers to do the same. The form of the logo should be finalised so you confidently know that the design can stand on its own. Only then should a colour palette be introduced.
Keep colours simple in logo design. I generally stick to using just one or two colours in logo designs. These colours become the primary brand colours and are the basis for how the rest of the colour palette is chosen.
If you choose two colours for your logo design, I would advise choosing the main colour first and then a more neutral second colour. You don’t want the colours to “fight” against one another. Hierarchy is a key design principle that helps to ensure things stay balanced. Two equally bold colours can be difficult to harmonise. Let one be the colour that stands out and the other can complement it.
If you choose to have your logo in one colour, consider a background colour that you could use as an alternative to white but that still works with your logo colour. This starts to build out your palette and create more flexibility in your colour use.
Related post: 8 key points for logo design and how to apply them
Continuing to build out your colour palette
So, at this point, you’ve got a couple of colours to start with. I generally believe your primary brand identity colour palette should be made up of only the colours you use in your logo design. You can use tints of these colours to give your palette a bit more range. However, you may also want to build up a secondary colour palette. This gives you a bit more to play around with when it comes to creating and sharing designed content, the way you might on social media.
For example, I found that on Instagram and Pinterest (where I share many images) initially having only two colours to work made my accounts look too repetitive. I needed to expand my colour palette so that I could create a more interesting-looking array of content.
Secondary colours and accent colours
Although I call it a secondary colour palette, I don’t think of it as something entirely separate. It’s more of an extension of the same palette. That’s key to keep in mind, since you’ve got to make sure the secondary colours you choose still complement your primary colours.
You will also want to have at least one accent colour in your brand identity colour palette. This is generally a colour that stands out strongly against your main colour(s). Your main colour will be the one you use most widely in your branding, and for that reason may be the most recognisable colour associated with your brand. Your accent colour, then, is the colour you would use on website buttons, hyperlinks etc. — basically anything you want to draw attention to.
In my own brand identity, I actually use the colour of my logo as my accent colour. It’s a deep red tone that would be too overpowering for my brand to use too frequently, so I never use it as a background colour or for paragraphs of text, or even headings. I use it only for links on my website, page numbers on documents, and for my logo. Since it’s so sparely used, it really stands out and draws attention, particularly against the grey colour I use as my main brand colour on my website and other brand touchpoints.
Include details of colour palette use in your style guide
Not only do you want to choose your brand colour palette, but you also want to define how your colours should be used. The place to do that is in a style guide. In it, you can specify which colours are used in the logo design, which might include variations (logo on white background, logo on coloured background etc).
Other details you can add include which combinations of colours can be used. You might have colours in your palette that should not ever appear together. You can set guidelines for which colours can be used for text and which are for backgrounds. Maybe you only allow your colours to be used at full, 100% opacity.
Having these guidelines written out not only helps you to keep your brand identity consistent, but also keeps everyone on the same page if you outsource design work.
Related post: What all style guides should include in detail
When I was first planning out this post, I thought I might be able to outline a formula for how you can choose your primary, secondary and accent colours based on colour wheels and colour theory. But the reality is, like everything in branding, what it comes down to is the unique needs of each individual business. There just isn’t one, single way to choose which colours you should use, or to know how many colours you need and how to choose them.
Nonetheless, I hope my tips are helpful! If you’d like some inspiration as a starting point, check out my post on 22 hand-picked colour palettes for your next project.
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