By Gary Anderson
Posted on Friday, September 24th, 2021
Choosing colors involves a certain amount of risk, as your clients may not share your enthusiasm or vision for color. It is an adventure that can add a lot to your own pleasure of making signs and actually help them function better. It is your job to convince your customers that your color choices are well founded, based on experience, and that you have their best interests at heart.
Your clients are going to have more opinions about color than any other area of design, because they deal with it on a daily basis—they choose the colors of their clothes, their vehicles, their homes inside and out. Choosing colors for a sign is a little more complicated, though, because it involves factors that aren’t a part of normal daily life.
The colors used in advertising tend to be brighter than those everyday color choices and may include unusual combinations. More colors may be used, too. They usually require higher contrast. It’s not just a matter of choosing colors that you like. The colors have a job to do.
Quiz them out To start the color selection process, ask your client questions such as, “What color is your building? Are there any local sign code restrictions concerning color? Are there any corporate colors or colors you use in other advertising? What’s your favorite color? Are there any colors you don’t want to use?” Sometimes the product they sell will dictate color selection.
With these questions answered, you have established a basis to begin your color selection process. Now is the time to offer creative color choices and be able to tell the client why these choices make sense, and have other combinations to offer.
For example, if they say they want a dark green background, I might suggest light peach letters with a medium peach inset, and a burnt orange border with lemon green stripe, and wait to see what their reaction will be.
If they think this is too wild, I can always fall back on beige or light old gold letters, medium old gold or burnt orange border with a maroon, medium orange or beige stripe. It’s a game of percentages, and you may not get everything you want. But get what you can.
In many cases it’s the designer, not the client, who inhibits color choices—often the client will be receptive if given the opportunity.
Choosing colors Because there is an infinite number of colors and color combinations, choosing the right colors is a challenge. Your personality, the project at hand, and where you live and work are a few of the factors that will influence your color selections. Since it’s impossible to remember all the color combinations, I use a system to help me make color choices.
New color combinations come about by the doing. Looking at Pantone Matching System color charts, paint flip charts, or a computer screen can only train your eye to a certain degree. By the doing, I mean actual job application. That is the only way color can be learned. It trains your eye and frees your imagination.
The effect that you want to achieve is contrast, depth, and prioritization so the sign, once noticed, will be read in the correct order regardless of what colors you choose.
Add complements to make colors appear dull. Complements are the opposing color on the color wheel (red/green, orange/blue, yellow/purple). When added to each other, they become grayer. This is a great tool for taking the fire out of a primary color. You can also use it to subtract color if you put too much of a certain color in the mix.
About the rules The traditional rule is to use no more than three or four colors per sign design, but I think that has more to do with simplifying production than anything else. Fine art paintings are not limited on the number of colors used, so why should a sign? An infinite number of colors can be integrated into a design. That’s not to imply that it should always be done, but it’s good to be aware of. Pictorials are exempted from the color count, but an attempt should be made to balance the pictorial colors with an accent stripe, an underline or some small detail.
When selecting a color, I never concern myself with its ability to recede (blue, green, or purple) or its ability to come forward (red, orange, or yellow) unless I am painting a natural landscape and the trees or mountains are getting bluer as they recede into the distance.
Of course, there are certain situations where color combinations are dictated by the copy. It would be foolish not to follow the natural flow such as the Sunshine Inn in warm colors and the Ice House in cool colors.
In the most simplistic way of looking at color, only three primary colors exist: red, blue, and yellow, and their additives, black and white. From these colors an infinite number of variations can be made. I produced the Pygmalion’s sign as an experiment, using the six basic colors of the spectrum. When asked what is unique about this sign, most people do not recognize that fact. By controlling the intensity and tone of each color I made a perfectly functional sign. There may be a few basic principles broken with this sign concerning balance, but rules and systems are made to be broken as long as you understand the concepts behind them.
Gary Anderson’s shop, Bloomington Design, is in Bloomington, Indiana.