Picking brand colours? Here’s how to achieve colour happiness

written by Eve Entwisle

Picking brand colours is an exciting job. But before you dive into it, you need to know exactly what your brand stands for.

That’s a topic for another time – but with those values in hand, you need to find colours to match.

Sounds easy, right? But how does it work? Well, thanks to associations born through instinct or repetition, different colours help us to communicate values and emotions. For example, shades of yellow can help evoke feelings of warmth and friendliness, while green often speaks to eco-friendliness.

These rules aren’t fixed, of course. Different cultures respond differently to certain shades (as we learned while designing Aetna’s vHealth app). But having a rough idea of what’s what helps to give us an idea of where to look within the colour wheel.

Colour’s a fantastic way of expressing yourself. As people, we pick the colour of our clothing, the colour of our hair, and the colour of our homes. All of these give strangers a glimpse of what we’re like as a person, and what we’re into.
Having said that, first impressions with people can be totally wrong. For example, nobody has any idea of my penchant for heavy metal, since I don’t pick out the usual body modificationmake-up, hairstyle and clothing associated with that genre.

With branding, though, there’s no room for second-guesses. Colour’s something we can all relate to. Which means that when we design something, we know that it will speak to people in the same way.

There is of course one exception to the rule. Dogs. Colour is wasted on them.

Picking brand colours you can ‘own’

Coca Cola bottle top

The world of branding uses colour to help create recognition and impact. That’s what we’re talking about when we say a brand ‘owns’ a colour (or any other asset).

Which brands instantly spring to mind? Coca Cola’s a good place to start. Its shade of red is inimitable – albeit ‘chosen’ accidentally. Then take Cadbury’s purple and Marie Curie’s yellow. They’ve all successfully managed to own distinctive colours by creating powerful brand associations. While other brands might focus more on developing unique typography to be their key point of differentiation.

But brands need to be reproduced by different people. On different mediums. In different places at different times. So the most important thing is consistency when it comes to your brand colour.

The moment you lose consistency, you lose all the benefits of picking brand colours to represent you. The emotion, the associations, the expressions, become muddied. Imagine printing billboards that don’t match your website. Not good at all.

Avoiding common mistakes

Rule number one is to avoid picking colours only achievable by using Pantone inks. For the uninitiated, Pantone is a standardised colour-matching system. Since it’s standardised, different manufacturers, designers, and printers around the globe can achieve the same colours without checking each others’ work constantly.

Pantone swatch book orange blue and green

It’s a great system. Its universal, its range is vast, and it’s constantly updated to improve its spectrum offering. I love Pantone, and if anyone ever wonders where the Pantone swatch book is currently sitting in the office, your best bet is generally going to be on my desk.

It’s fair to say I’m a Pantone obsessive; I know all their songs, I know where they live. And if I don’t get my Pantone fix at least once a day, bad things happen.

Pantone’s amazing (if it’s in your budget)

But it comes at a price. Cost. It’s much more expensive. And just like side orders in a posh French restaurant, printers charge you per colour. Because of this, we only suggest using purely Pantone when and where the budget allows.

Another reason to avoid only picking the super bright vivid tones within the swatch book is colour reproduction. Sometimes, you can’t use the tones for things like pull up banners and wall vinyls, so you need to use the CMYK equivalent. Luckily, Pantone swatch books have done the hard work for us, and suggest the closest matching CMYK breakdown for every colour.

But I said ‘closest matching’, not ‘identical’. If you happen to have a swatch book close to hand, have a flick through it and you’ll see how some colours translate effortlessly, whilst others fail miserably.

Imagine the mismatch of printing your business cards in a shocking Pantone neon pink, and your pull-up banners in a wishy-washy salmon. Nightmare!

The second mistake to avoid is picking a colour breakdown in programmes like Adobe Illustrator, or picking a colour from a website or a document you’ve scanned, as the values might not be on the money.

The problem with this is that when it comes to putting brand guidelines together, Pantone references are generally the starting point. If you didn’t start with a Pantone, it becomes a challenge to convert the CMYK figures to an accurate approximation. It’s essentially doing the job in reverse and brings up a whole world of consistency challenges.

Three simple rules to picking brand colours

  1. Choose a colour from a swatch book (not from a screen, not colour-picked from a website, and definitely not from a photo you took of a wallpaper that caught your eye).
  2. Make sure it has similar outputs across Pantone, CMYK, RGB to give you the most flexibility when it comes to producing, printing and polishing.
  3. And if Pantone is simply a no-go, don’t be afraid to stick to the traditional outputs. Happy client, happy boss, and best of all, happy you.

Right, time for a coffee.
Umm, OK, who the hell’s hidden my Pantone mug…

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