two identical icons of men in capes use different color palettes to indicate one is a hero and the other is a villain

The psychology of design: Telling a story through color

Riley Cullen's Layout avatar

The importance of color in branding can’t be overstated, so taking time to think about the impact of your color choices when conceptualizing the branding possibilities for a new client or company is vital to the overall success of your efforts.

Because the decision-making process of customers is more reliant on their emotions than their logic, the way customers feel about a brand is, arguably, even more important than the quality of their products and services.

But choosing colors for your design project is about much more than the knowledge that red is assertive and blue is calming. You need to figure out how to best pair those colors together to bring life and meaning to your design—which is exactly what happens every time you build a color palette.

In this article, we’ll talk about the types of palettes you can create and places your color palette will come in handy, as well as a few emotions you might want customers to feel about a brand and ways to achieve that effect. We’ll also share some resources you can use to help you nail the perfect palette!

a hand icon chooses colors for a palette

Building your palette

While every brand is most easily recognized by its primary color, there’s typically a whole host of secondary and tertiary colors that build out their branding. Without a full palette, the branding used for a company is likely to feel stale or not well thought out.

When choosing your colors, there are six common ways to build a palette that will ensure your color choices complement one another and your brand as a whole. These six common types of palettes are named for the ways their colors align on the color wheel.

Monochromatic

Monochromatic palettes use three or more shades, tones, or tints of the same color. When using a monochromatic palette, your primary color choice holds even more weight, because all the other colors you use depend on it.

Analogous

To be “analogous,”  two things must be similar or comparable to one another. Analogous palettes, then, are those whose colors share close proximity on the color wheel. This usually manifests as a swatch of cool tones or warm tones.

Complementary

Opposites attract, and that’s especially true for complementary colors. Complementary palettes use colors that sit opposite one another on the color wheel.

Split complementary

Complementary colors are exact opposites, but split complementary palettes use hues just to the left or right of your primary color’s exact opposite. So, since orange and blue are complementary, a split complementary palette could include orange, teal, and violet.

Triadic

Triadic color palettes would create an equilateral triangle on the color wheel if you connected them all with a line. They’re composed of three equally-spaced colors on the wheel, like raspberry pink, nectarine yellow, and aqua blue.

Tetradic

Sometimes referred to as “square” or “rectangle” colors, tetradic color palettes would create a perfect square or rectangle if connected by lines on the color wheel.

Just because two colors are perfectly complementary or tetradic does not mean they’ll necessarily be the best choices for your color palette. Make sure to tweak and adjust colors based on client preferences, their industry, their products and services, and the message they’re trying to impart on their audience.

Utilizing your palette

Your brand palette will appear on all your branded materials. For some, it may be used to highlight important information or make subheadings stand out, while other materials may require some additional pizazz to enhance visual cues. The most important places you’ll use the colors in your expanded brand palette include:

  • Advertisements
  • Company website
  • Direct mail
  • Emails
  • Social media
  • Storefront signage
  • Uniforms
  • Vehicle wraps

You can and should be using your palette as a way to tell your brand story. Whether they’re part of your regularly used brand palette or you introduce new colors for a special occasion, purpose, or campaign, the colors you choose say a lot about your intentions.

Exciting & Fun

Taco Bell’s brand palette truly embodies their motto, “live màs.” While their primary palette only includes monochromatic shades of purple, secondary colors like hot pink and bright yellows and oranges brighten up the brand’s online presence for a bold look.

Trustworthy & Ethical

Google tops the list of most trusted brands this year, but you’ll notice their palette is still very bright and colorful. That’s because choosing colors that fit your industry or service offerings is crucial in telling your brand story. Google is in the business of providing information, and their palette includes colors you might find in an elementary classroom, which allows them to position themselves as the teacher.

Dependable & Safe

ADT’s primary blue sets a reliable tone, which is exactly what you’d want in a security company. When they partnered with the Property Brothers during a 2019 advertising campaign, however, they were focused on their millennial audience. Radley Studios introduced a peachy pink and minty green color combo for the TV campaign to help soften their look and appeal to a younger crowd while maintaining their dependable brand persona.

Creating the perfect palette

There are a ton of tools online to help you gain inspiration and start picking hues for the perfect brand palette. The following are a few of my favorites—try them out next time you need a creative spark while color scheming!

Color Hunt

Color Hunt is a great first stop when you’re in the design process. Sort palettes by popularity during a certain time frame, by theme, or try your luck with a random selection! Then, you can save your favorites and reference them later.

a screenshot of palette inspiration found on the Color Hunt hompage
The Color Hunt homepage continuously updates with new palette inspiration

Colormind

When clients provide a lot of inspiration but not a lot of pointed direction, it can be difficult to refresh a brand or choose the right colors for a campaign strategy. Colormind lets you build custom palettes and generate random ones, but it will also build a custom palette based on a photo. 

Just upload your image, and see which shades make the most sense with the inspiration your clients have provided! You can keep clicking “generate” if you want to see new options. Here’s an example palette it generated using a picture of my brother.

a sample palette including blues, browns, and greens made my Colormind
A palette based on the photo below chosen by Colormind

A man in a hat opens a beer with an axe
He’s every bit as cool as he looks in this pic…just ask him.

Canva color wheel

The Canva color wheel is helpful when you’re working within the confines of a brand’s standards and need additional colors for a new campaign or initiative. This wheel will find colors that complement your client’s existing colors based on the type of palette you’re trying to build. 

You can then take and tweak those suggested colors until you find the perfect shade for your design project. Here’s some options it presented after I entered WP Engine’s signature blue hue.

The psychology of design

Part one of our psychology series explored the potential impacts of color, and now that you’re ready to build out your palette, it’s time to start thinking about imagery. Our third installment will take a deep dive into shapes, icons, and how they can impact your audience when used for your logo, on your site, and beyond!

Keep up with Layout for the latest and greatest insights on all things design, including the psychology behind it. Do you have a great tool or tip for building a brand’s color palette? Leave a comment to share your advice!

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