Design with Flying Colours

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Do you want to know how to work with colour? Let McDonald’s help you

One of the most frequent questions people ask me is about how to choose colours in a design project. Recently I came across this same query in the About Desktop Publishing forum, one of 5 that I help moderate. The forum member who posed the question and I got into a solid discussion about the colour wheel and colour combinations, and I thought I made the most important points available also here on Designorati:Graphic Design.

No Hard and Fast Rules

Design, like all the creative disciplines, doesn’t have hard and fast rules. It is up to the designer to find the combination of elements that communicates the message he is after. This is valid for the way colour is used, the way the elements are placed on the page, the way text is treated and any other element that comes into play in a design.

The designer is the one with the creative impulse, he is the mind behind everything. No matter what tools he uses, he has to put his mind to work. Tools are tools. Just as software won’t make the designer, a colour wheel won’t tell a person exactly how to use colours, how much or how many times. The colour wheel is an important aid and colour combinations must be learnt and understood, if one wants to know what works and what doesn’t. Yet don’t be fooled by the word “principle”. It is not a rule, it is not a “If Jack does A, I do B” Principles are the same every time, but design tasks aren’t. It’s up to the designer to decide how to apply them to each job.

Colour Harmonies

During the discussion, the forum member over at About.com asked:

You see usually I mix and match color using a software called colorschemer [...] Let say I want to make a brochure that the majority color is red, and I decided to use three colors, then I find what is the tertiary color, and then just use it. But I feel that the color is really irritating for my eyes, it doesn’t look nice. Any suggestion?

As I said earlier in this article, the first point I made was that a colour wheel is a tool, but him as the designer was the one with the power of choice, but I also added that there are other guidelines to follow:

  • There are different types of colour harmonies and when you use them you don’t only put colours next to each other, you also look at the amount of colour you use
  • First type of harmony is “direct”: If you take a colour wheel, which you find in Color Schemer, direct harmony refers to the colour right opposite to the dominant or key colour. That colour is called “complementary” and you should use it as much as or usually less than the key colour
  • Second type of harmony is “related colour” or “analogue colours”: These are the colours that are next to the key colour, left and right. You could stretch it as much as two colours to the left or to the right
  • Then you have the “split complementary” or simply “split”: This is the colour harmony between the key colour and the colours next to the complementary colour. This is a colour harmony that you don’t want to use very much; use the split colour in small quantities and sparingly
  • Last is the “triadic harmony”: The “triads” are those colours that are two spaces on each side of the complementary. Once again, the triads are used in very small quantity compared to the key colour

When colours are irritating, even if they are per the colour wheel, you might have used too much of one of them or several of them. And as I said, if you really don’t like it, just don’t use it.

The colour wheelThe colour wheel

Aside from colour harmonies, there’s another subject called colour depth. Some colours will make an object appear closer to the beholder than another. The easiest way to remember it, using Colour Schemer, is this: If you are working on a black (or dark) background take red as your reference point. That is the colour that on black backgrounds appears nearest. Then move clockwise on the colour wheel and you will get the sequence of colours from nearest to farthest. And yes, violet is close to red, but it looks like the farthest from the viewpoint of the viewer. Those who use other colour wheels instead of Colour Schemer, should check if their colours are placed the same way they are in Colour Schemer. Some colour wheels have orange on the left of red, while others have it on the right.

If you are working on a white blackground, blue appears to be the nearest, then once again move clockwise on the colour wheel to get the colours from nearest to farthest. Once more, this works for the Colour Schemer colour wheel, but if you have another one where the colours are the other way around, you just need to go anti-clockwise.

With all this explaining, you might be hungry. This is where McDonald’s comes to play. Yet whether you like burgers or not, next page will show you how they can be useful to design even if you don’t eat them.

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