Colour is a wonderful, and sometimes confusing thing.
Do you remember those paint-by-numbers kits you did when you were a kid? You know, the ones that came with a set of paint and told you exactly what colour should go where.
Such a brilliant concept for helping people learn some basics, while creating a beautiful piece of art. Could you ever have imagined that these fun little crafts would present themselves as a solution to real challenges?
In the design world, one of the most challenging aspects is working with colour. Getting the right combination is a challenge made more difficult by the presentation medium. The result is we find that colours just do not display the same from one medium to another. For the unfamiliar, this can present challenges in working with a designer.
Often, clients will have a colour that they absolutely love, and they want it to look the same everywhere. And believe me, we all would. Though sadly, this is not how things work in practice. Not even within the same medium.
Consider paint. The base ingredients and how you mix it all affects the resulting colour. The lighting the work is viewed in, and the material on which it’s painted will change the colours presentation. Even how old the material is will affect how it appears. Take The Dress confusion that swept the world. Was it blue, or was it white (wiki link)? There are so many variables that it is quite challenging to replicate exactly as intended.
1. No Colour is Made Equal
The two general methods used to create colour are additive, and subtraction. An oversimplification; however, the specifics aren’t needed to understand the two.
When we create light (such as with TV’s) we add colours together using Red, Green, and Blue (RGB). With these three colours we can make millions of others. As device displays and TVs increase in quality, so too has the number of colours that we can produce.
With this colour production comes the ability to adjust the brightness and contrast, which can mute or intensify the presentation of the colour. Changing the monitor to display “warm” (red undertone) or “cool” (blue undertone) has a drastic impact.
When you look at an object like a piece of paper, you are seeing the reflection of colour (light) that has been “absorbed”. This absorbed colour was subtracted from the light source exposing it to the visible spectrum. White reflects all, and black absorbs/subtracts all (again, this is an oversimplification).
In non-digital mediums, this is done using the colours Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (CMYK). Sparing the details on why this is, it should still provide insight toward how the two colour methods produce different results for the same colour.
2. Technology is Untamed
Looking at the digital space, specifically monitors. Each has it’s own set of standards based on the manufacturers goals. There are little to no standards across manufacturers, so this clearly suggests inconsistencies. But it goes way beyond this!
Within a given display device there are controls to adjust the brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, and those noted above. These all effect how colours appear, but moreover, this shows how even with two identical devices there can be two totally different display settings. The result is that even the same monitor can display different from one another. With no control over how users adjust their monitor, we cannot rely on the settings to be accurate.
Even a single monitor, on the same page with the same resource, can still present colour differently. Take the following Stewed Beans logo in the WordPress Theme Customize:
If you really want accurate representation there are calibration tools available. These tools ensure that the displayed colour matches what the hardware says it should be (e.g. #A0C1C5). The downside is that a quality device will cost a fair amount, and it may not even be worth it.
The truth is that even if you do have one of these, there are further limitations that show why the investment may not be necessary.
3. Our Biology Plays Tricks
The human eye has adapted over time with the ability to detect millions of colours; though, at limited resolution. Due to evolution, there are people who are colour-blind, people that can see beyond the average visible range, and even people who see colour visuals as a result of a blending of their senses, referred to as Synesthesia.
While it’s true that the majority of people see roughly the same spectrum, not everyone does. Consider the difficulty of reading light grey text on a white background. Some users may not even see the text because the contrast between the two colours is simply too little to distinguish.
Then of course there is the simple human nature of personal preference. What one person may like, another will not. Because of this, it simply won’t matter if the colour is displaying exactly as expected.
We all want our marketing material to look amazing. Considering how different mediums present colour in different ways, and each person interprets or sees colours different from another person, its often best to stick to the numbers.
The great part about this approach is that once you have the palette selected, you can save the information for later. Be confident that your brand will be represented consistently.
But how do you go about selecting the ideal colours?
Talk with your designer about the goals of the project. The specifics of what your company is about, and who your target audience is are both crucial in helping them find colour palettes that win.
Run through the palettes with design mock-ups to refine the selections, and trust your designers feedback. Colour is part of their passion, and it’s part of what makes them successful. Lean on their skills in this area.
Find a colour that you feel best represents your brand, and the interest of your target audience. Next, locate additional colours using an online generator. This will help make the process go much more quickly.
There are a number of great utilities that make selecting a colour palette incredibly easy. Simply enter a starting colour and go from there. Try variations of the same colour, and look for complimentary colours. You might be surprised at what colours go well with each other.
Use colour codes rather than relying on appearance alone. Understanding this will save a lot of time and frustration.
Trust the numbers.
Be one with the numbers.