10 tips on using color successfully

By Randy Howe

Posted on Monday, May 17th, 2021

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When it comes to color I’m more of a minimalist. Again, it’s about simplicity. I tend to use just enough color to get the job done. Unless you’re really confident about your ability to use a variety of colors, then the “keep-it-simple” approach is probably going to be the most effective for you.

I’ve worked alongside folks like Doug Downey of The Image Factory who can really go crazy with color and make it work. But I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. Just take a look at the signs you see all around you—many of them have been wrecked by poor color choices.

The digital age has made it easier to add more colors—and more shades, more fades, more outlines, more effects. Unless you’re a real master of color, all that can make a sign harder and slower to read.

Over the years, I’ve found a few guidelines that work for me when it comes to choosing and using color on signs. I hope you find them helpful, too.

1. Take a minimalist approach. 99% of the time, I start out working with one or two colors. Very often it’s black and red—I don’t know why! But usually I start with a couple of colors that fit the feel of the job and work from there. If it’s going on a building, I’ll keep those colors in mind. I won’t make the sign blend in with those colors, though—I usually want it to stand out.

2. Readability comes first. A sign isn’t first a piece of fine art. It can surely be beautiful, but it first has a very important job to do: to deliver a message. That’s not going to happen if it can’t be read easily. It takes discipline to keep that in mind, but your customer will benefit if you do. Color must improve readability.

3. Use color to help prioritize the message. Color is just as important a tool as letter size and weight when it comes to organizing the message for the reader. Color can soften the impact of certain copy, or it can help it shout.

4. Make sure there is plenty of contrast. Most signs need to be read in a hurry. A strong contrast between the letter color and background makes the lettering easier to read. Take advantage of that contrast on the sign’s primary message.

5. Add impact with color. Impact doesn’t mean in-your-face or busy or shocking or colorful. It means power and legibility. That gets hard to achieve as you introduce more colors into a layout.

6. Use black and white. On many of the signs I design, I like to use white letters—yes, WHITE! That sounds rather blah at first, but check out the examples shown here. Many of these signs are very colorful and eye-catching—and the primary copy is white! I also often use some black or a very dark color somewhere on the sign. It adds contrast and impact, even in small doses.

7. Watch the effects. A little of this goes a long way. I rarely use them at all. They are so overused nowadays that much of their appeal has worn off, and they can really hurt the readability of the message.

8. Be prepared to show why. Why simple is better, that is. You can do this with a few photos, especially before-and-after shots. Help the customer look past the novelty of effects and colors, so they can judge based on readability. Remind them that most viewers have only a few seconds to read a sign.

9. Learn from your mistakes. We all make color errors. We get an idea in our head and it just doesn’t work. If you learn from that, it’s experience. If you don’t, it’s…well…stupid.

10. You can sell this skill. Showing that you know how to use color to deliver better value can really help gain the confidence of your client. It’s easy to sit a prospect down with you at the computer and impress him with all the cool effects you can do. But it’s better to show them that you know how to solve their problem or deliver powerful advertising at a great value. If you can do that, they’ll usually let you do your best for them, and they’ll be a client for a long time to come.

Randy Howe’s shop, GetZumExposture.com, is in Port Dover, Ontario, Canada.

SignCraft Magazine, March/April 2011

This design was done for the folks at Wooden Features in Augusta, Georgia.

Here’s a design for a simple digitally printed sign. The background is from a clipart site and provides the necessary color. There’s no need to start throwing special effects at the lettering—that would only hurt the legibility.

This was a tough one, because the light bulb and valve were used on their previous truck and had to stay. I stared at the screen for a while before an idea started to come together. But with a little thought, you can create a layout that works—even when the customer insists on maintaining certain elements of an old design.

Window splashes are by far my favorite thing to design—big, bold letters and big, bold colors.

This deviates from my usual clean-and-simple approach but I could get away with that because it’s a sidewalk A-frame sign. The readers would be walking by, so you can take some liberties when the viewers have more time. It wouldn’t have worked on their storefront, which I did much cleaner. This was a collaborative effort with Doug Downey, CreativeInk.ca.

This is just silver metallic film. I really like that look—clean and simple.

This company does high-end stonework. Their yard sign didn’t need to shout—they just needed a nice tasteful look.

Randy Howe’s shop, Getzum Exposure, is in Port Dover, Ontario, Canada.