In this fun era of WordPress and Strikingly, free photo banks, easy to use online picture editing tools and relatively usable logo generators, it gets simpler and simpler to start creating your own little corner of the internet. Which begs the question: how do I choose the look? Which colours should I pick for the brand? Will people associate the right message with these images?
On the long term, I do think it pays off to commission a designer or a branding agency should you have the budget, but in the very beginning we often just test ideas and it would be silly to commit to that kind of expense. But even if it’s a test, the look and feel of your thing matters and colours play a very important role in that. Here is how to go about picking a colour scheme that helps you express the personality of your brand best.
1.You need to know what characteristics you want to express
You always need a starting point. In this case, step zero is to ask yourself, what do you want to express with your brand. What do you want people to feel when they see your colours, look at your website, hold something you’ve made in their hands?
Any form of communication – in this case the visual – is meaningless without having a message to transmit, a goal to achieve. So first thing first, create a list of no more than 5 emotions or values that you want to be known for.
Maybe it is super easy for you to do that and you’ve been thinking about how do you want your brand to be perceived for some time now, which is great. (Jump straight to step 2!) However, if you can’t think of things right off the bat, or the contrary, there are way too many options, follow these steps.
- Your first task is to write down as many emotions and values as you can. For inspiration, think about big brands you respect and what do they stand for. Take a look at this cheat sheet with about 150 different expressions on it and pick the ones you like.
- Narrow the list down to maximum 5. In order to do this, you can start by picking the non-negotiables, the values and emotions that definitely need to be part of the brand. (For me, for example, these were joy, simplicity and a real crafted approach to work.) You can then pair the rest of the expressions with these and see if any of them helps to emphasise the core message in some way.
- If making decisions is difficult, think about real life situations when you’ve stood up for something: which values had been driving you then? Ultimately, a brand is only convincing if it stems from your genuine approach to life and business.
2.How do customers interpret colour?
Okay, so you have a list of 3 to 5 values or emotions now. The next question is how to pick the right colours so your customers will have a feel for your brand straight off the bat? There is a lot of research around what meaning do we associate with different shades. Some of them are easy to guess (at least within one’s own cultural sphere, which in my case is Europe, mostly Western): white is simplicity but also purity and freshness, red is energy, anger, love, war, green is the colour of growth, nature, and money.
To give you a starting point, here is a chart with the generally accepted Western meaning of colours. As a start to assembling your colour scheme, you can start by choosing the value or emotion that’s most important for your materials to express and look up which colour corresponds with that best.
One of my favourite sites is Cymbolism, because they display the results of an ongoing voting process. They’ve collected over a million opinions on what certain colours mean to people and by clicking on the words included you have access to this knowledge as well.
I also love the site because it reminds us how subjective colour really is: aside from colour blindness, our experiences shape our understanding and association with different colours. You can never pick a shade that will mean exactly the same thing to every person on this planet, so you can relax about this process a little and have fun with it.
Go ahead and see it for yourself – go to the voting section and see how your opinion compares to others’.
During my website and branding building process, I wanted to focus on a sense of joy, playfulness, simplicity and clarity. Luckily for me, playfulness, joy, easiness all appear to be judged yellow by a majority of people on Cymbolism (with green a close second.) Clarity is best expressed by lots of white space and a quite bright white shade as well as with a crisp colour for the text.
3.Get a colour scheme
Great, so you have chosen your main colour. This will be the one most dominant in your materials. The next task is to pick the exact shade, then the colours that will complement it well and strengthen your emotional message.
Start by looking at existing colour schemes. Canva here has a whole bunch of 4 colour palettes that you can browse, looking for the feel you are intending to achieve. While you could just pick an exact scheme, I’d encourage you to first just look for the perfect shade of your main colour. You can also play around with the Adobe Colour Wheel until you find the hue you feel the best about.
Copy the hex code of the colour – the one starting with #, this is the code that will work in HTML, so in most website building apps this is how you ‘ll be able to change the colour of elements to your choice. My cerulean blue accents on the site are for example #4484CE.*
Go to Coolors.co, and paste the hex code to replace the first swatch’s code then lock it with the little locket symbol. Press the space button and enjoy the suggested colour palettes. You can repeat this as many times you want, the app giving you suggestions for different colours that would complement your main one very well. As a shade you really love turns up, you can lock those in place as well, slowly ending up with a harmonising scheme.
It is important to know what you are looking for however. It makes sense to get a light shade, for text background. (In some cases your main colour will work well.) You’ll need a darker one that offers good readability with your background colour, for the text itself. You’ll need one or two brighter, highlighter hue, for accents, links, emphasise and buttons. The palette below would be unlikely to be able to fulfil this mission, the colours being all too saturated and dark.
This one, however, could fit the bill very well.
+1 pick the right images
It’s perfectly fine to have a website – or any other kind of branded material – without images. However, if you’d like to add some, it is important that they match up with the general mood and message, as well as the established colour scheme.
One way to do this is to start with the photo. Maybe you have an image that expresses your brand feel perfectly and you really love the colourway it displays. In this case, I’d suggest using a colour scheme generator. There are zillions of them out there, you just need to google “colour scheme from picture” but thanks to its clean interface I’d suggest using Canva – their full image editing functionality is pretty good too. Pictaculous is another working option. Here you get more than one possible colour schemes based on the image, so if you prefer being able to pick and choose, this is your tool.
Maybe you only need one colour from a particular image, in which case Image Color Picker is your solution: just upload the image and pick the colour you desire with the help of your cursor. This is what I did when choosing the final yellow for the website. I tried out several but in the end, I found my preferred hue on the lemon zest. Using the colour picker I’ve found the bright yellow that not only was my (admittedly subjective) favourite, but matched the photo the best too.
Last but not least, how can you find photos that will match your existing colour scheme? My favourite tool for finding free images is Unsplash and since their recent new features went live, it is easy to look for photos according to content or, you guessed right, colours. (You can use the downloaded pictures as you wish, but it’s always good karma to give credit to the photographer.) Of course, what is actually visible on the image will be important too, do not choose one that oozes peace if your message is all about activity and effort and vica versa.
And here we go, congratulations, you have your very own brand colour scheme and images that are matching well with that!
There is one important thing to keep in mind: there is no perfect answer. While we have social constructs about the meaning of different colours, it is far from universal. You can’t please with one colour scheme or shade each and every other person on this planet. In the end, after the research and looking at all the pretty pictures, you’ll have to make a decision. You’ll have to stop thinking and debating and procrastinating through branding. Take a deep breath and choose the colour scheme that feels like the best match to your vision in your own head.
*You might need the RGB or CMYK code of your chosen colour further down the line, for printing for example or commissioning graphic design. This site here is a handy tool to convert hex to either.