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Logo Design Fundamentals: Using Color Effectively

Chris Dickman Fri, 03/21/2014 - 05:00

Excerpted with permission from The Logo Brainstorm Book: A Comprehensive Guide for Exploring Design Directions by Jim Krause (F+W Media, imprint HOW))

Are there effective ways of combining colors using something other than vague feelings that seem to suggest that certain hues go well together and that others don’t? There certainly are, and these color-picking strategies are based on age-old methods that are as effective at coming up with eye-catching and trend-setting palettes today as they were during the Renaissance.

The palette-building methods presented in what follows are based on three easy-to-grasp components. The first is a tried-and-true set of associations between hues on the color wheel: monochromatic, complementary, split complementary, analogous and triadic (each of these kinds of color relation-ships are defined on the pages ahead). The second is the all-important knowledge that any hue can be featured as a value that ranges from dark to light and with saturation that ranges from bright to muted. The third component for the effective application of color is an awareness of current color trends—a consciousness that’s been cultivated by keeping your eyes open to the palettes used by today’s outstanding artists and designers.

How would you rate your color-picking confidence? Do you feel fully competent, moderately capable or completely in the dark? However you answer this question, there is something in what follows for you—whether its content serves as a refresher on the concepts that underlie your well-honed palette-building skills, whether it helps solidify the thinking behind your developing color-combining instincts or whether it provides you with just the set of fundamentals you’ve been looking for upon which to build your own color-savvy sensibilities.

The vocabulary of color:
Hue: another word for color
Saturation: the brightness or purity of a color (also referred to as intensity)
Value: the relative lightness or darkness of a hue on a scale from white to black

One Color Plus Black

Printing budgets, client preferences and project goals often dictate that a logo be limited to a single spot color (a specific color of ink that’s premixed before it’s loaded into a printing press) plus black ink. Still, this limit doesn’t need to be seen as a restriction: An effectively chosen color—combined with black and applied appropriately to a well-crafted logo—should be more than capable of helping the signature attract and hold the attention of its target audience.

Faced with an infinite number of choices, how do you know which color is right for the logo you’re working on? By paying attention: Take note of color trends of the present, the past and the (projected) future, become familiar with the media your target audience enjoys, investigate the way your client’s competition uses color (not for the sake of copying, but for the sake of choosing something different) and be mindful as to which colors are—and which colors are not—well suited to the media in which the logo will be presented.

[A] Working with just one color plus black? Brainstorm your options: It may surprise you to find out just how many ways a logo can be colored and shaded using a limited palette. [B] Consider solutions that range from muted to bright. [C] Three options to consider whenever you’re deciding how to apply a spot color (plus the option of black ink) to a logo-plus-icon design: apply color to the icon and use black for the type, present the type in color and make the icon black or use the spot color for everything. [D] Got a favored hue in mind? Use the computer to see how your logo looks when it is colored with an intense form of the hue and also take a look at how the design comes across when it’s treated to lighter, darker and less saturated versions of the color.


Monochromatic sets of colors tend to convey themselves more quietly than other palettes (complementary, triadic, analogous, etc.). This is because the amount of variety within monochromatic schemes is limited to differences in value and intensity, while other kinds of palettes can also take advantage of differences between hues. Would a visually subdued palette fit the thematic and visual goals of the logo you’re working on? If so, then consider coloring the design with a set of monochromatic hues—with or without the addition of black and/or white elements.

Monochromatic palettes are sets of hues taken from a single spoke of the color wheel. The colors in a monochromatic palette can differ by value, by intensity or by both value and intensity.

[A] A trio of logos colored with monochromatic hues along with black and white (black and white are usually considered permissible additions to monochromatic palettes). If you are choosing colors for an icon that will be used as a backdrop for typography, consider applying a monochromatic palette to the backdrop design. Monochromatic color combinations—because of their low-key visual impact—are well suited for graphic elements that are meant to present themselves in a non-distracting way. [B] How about delineating your design’s monochromatic hues with black or white lines? Differences in value can also be relied upon to clearly distinguish a palette’s shades. [C] Screened tints of any color of ink count as that color’s monochromatic relatives. Consider expanding your spot-color (or your spot-color-plus-black) palette by including tints of the ink(s).


Complementary colors come from opposite sides of the color wheel and have absolutely nothing in common: There is no red in green, no yellow in violet, and blue contains nary a trace of orange. Why are pairs of colors with nothing in common described as “complementary”? Perhaps it’s because both hues in a complementary pair can express themselves in precisely all the ways that the other cannot, and pairs of complementary hues can therefore convey themselves with a spectral wholeness that’s beyond the reach of any other type of color pairing. Looking for an ultimately dynamic duo of hues for your logo? Look no further than a pair of complementary hues.

Complementary hues come from opposite segments of the color wheel. When pairing complementary colors, try using both hues at full strength, and also see how the combination is affected when one or both of the colors are muted, lightened or darkened.

Tip: There’s no need to be exact when choosing a pair of complementary hues (or when selecting colors for any of the other palettes featured here). Let your design sense guide you toward hues that fit the general description of the kind of palette being formed and don’t hesitate to make adjustments to any of the palette’s colors if you feel that the adjustments improve the look and the
effect of their combined presence.

[A] Investigating ways of applying a pair of complementary hues to a logo? Consider solutions that feature different amounts of each color as well as ideas that include screens of one or both inks. [B] Intense? Muted? Lightened? Darkened? Use the computer to explore differences in saturation and value before deciding which incarnation of each of your complementary hues looks best. [C] How about muting one of the hues of your complementary palette and featuring the other at full intensity? Magenta and yellow-green take turns playing muted and bright roles in this pair of designs. [D] Magenta and yellow-green appear in these logos as well. Both hues appear at full intensity in the first sample, and in the second design the yellow-green has been lightened as a way of granting clear visual emphasis to the signature’s bright and saturated central icon.

Split Complementary

Want to come up with an eye-catching multicolor palette for your logo? A combination of hues that delivers connotations of both harmony and contrast? Consider a split-complementary palette—a palette built from two harmoniously related near neighbors and one contrasting hue from the other side of the color wheel.

When building a split-complimentary palette (or any other kind of palette, for that matter), explore variations that involve muting some of its colors, breaking its hues down into multiple shades and varying its colors’ values to achieve different degrees of contrast.

Split-complementary palettes are built by choosing a color and pairing it with the two hues on either side of the original color’s complement. The hues within a split-complementary palette can be used full intensity, muted, lightened or darkened.

[A] Once you have a logo at least roughly designed, and a set of split-complementary hues chosen and ready for application, your next task should be to try out all kinds of different color configurations. Software makes creative exploration of this kind too easy to pass up. [B] Two designs—one with a graphic colored using close-value split-complementary hues and one that features colors of widely different values. Close-value palettes tend to deliver themselves with more restraint than their wide-valued relatives. [C] The hues of a split-complementary palette have been variously shuffled to produce the coloring for this signature’s trio of icons. [D] Unless printing restrictions forbid it, why not consider adding gray, black or white to your split-complementary color scheme?

The preceding is an excerpt from The Logo Brainstorm Book: A Comprehensive Guide for Exploring Design Directions by Jim Krause. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, F+W Media, imprint HOW. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.