Color contrasts help you control the message

By Bob Behounek

Posted on Thursday, January 28th, 2021

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Simultaneous contrasts take place when you use two colors together that are on opposite sides of the color wheel.

“Opposites attract,” says the old, oft-repeated saying. This doesn’t only apply to marriages, friendships and magnets. It applies to sign design, too. Opposites attract the viewer’s eye.

Picking up where we left off on the subject of color contrasts, the word contrast is defined in the dictionary as, “Two things side by side so as to show their differences.” Consider the reflectability of color that we discussed before—where light causes certain colors to come forward and others to retreat. Those contrasting percentages allow us to use low reflectability colors with high reflectability colors to make our images readable and clear to understand.

Using these percentages, let’s move along into another important contrast category—simultaneous contrasts. Simul-what? I know this sounds like a fancy phrase, but it is yet another big piece of the puzzle. Simultaneous contrasts take place when you use two colors together that are on opposite sides of the ever-beloved color wheel.

Yes, opposite colors used together with the same or similar reflectability will create a simultaneous contrast. These two colors will electrify a charge, if you will, with one another because they are totally opposite from each other on that color wheel.

These pure colors are pretty much the same brightness or dullness (sometimes referred to as intensity). For instance, red is directly across from green. Using the two together will make the green look greener and the red look redder. You know, like two opposite people—one short and one tall. Each will make the other look more so. If two colors are used that are not directly across from one another on the color wheel, a lesser charge between them will occur.

Every sign design situation presents itself with various color needs, and understanding them can save a lot of valuable design time. The psychological impact of color can determine the mood of our sign before any verbal communication is established.

As we have reviewed before, warm colors such as red, orange, yellow and burgundy will advance to the front. Cool colors such as blues and violets will retreat to the background. Using various opposite combinations together creates simultaneous color charges within our signage. Those warm colors can create excitement and flash; adding cool colors will neutralize and bring the tempo down somewhat so that balance is achieved.

Let’s look at a few examples and break them down to see how the colors work together with one another.

Motown Muscle is “supercharging” some very warm colors against some cool colors that are similar on the opposite side of the color wheel. A bunch of neutral white is surrounding these colors, similar to the black on the Otto sign.

The Rudy Vallée showcard has similar characteristics in color usage as the Motown piece. A lot of very warm colors contrasting the cool blues, with some neutral white between the contrasting colors, and black to surround them on the framework.

Otto Painting uses our previously mentioned opposing colors of green and red together. As you can see, that red is making the green look greener and vice-versa. Utilizing a neutral black background allows all the colors to come to the front.

The Dave Lull showcard is using two of our trusty opposing colors again—red and green. Both of those colors have the same brightness level and act as low as a reflectability can be—yet are still able to depict that there is a guitar shape present. This allows the lighter buff-colored lettering to be very visible. I’ll tell you, our green and red friends are creating plenty of simultaneous contrast on this one.

California Dreaming utilizes the warm and cool colors in a similar color intensity level. The pastels in the logo blend well with the high contrasting color of the services this company has to offer. The company’s name is in one warm color all by itself for quick identity while the surrounding colors are giving it a full charge from the opposite side of the color wheel.

When you have trouble utilizing colors on any given sign project, it’s time to pull the magical color wheel out from under your easel. Try pitting some of those opposing colors against one another for that simultaneous contrast charge. •SC

From SignCraft, January/February 2007

Bob Behounek has spent over 40 years as a sign artist and pinstriper in the Chicago, Illinois, area.