Select Color With Purpose

by Blake W. Howard

Colors are fun. Sometimes. They are one of my favorites parts of designing a new identity system, and when used correctly can be a huge asset for a brand. As designers we like to select swatches that personally grab our attention, but there is more to consider when selecting that next swatch than what currently is tickling our subjective designer fancy.

First, think singularly not plurally about a color. I think a goal of any brand should be to own a single color. Sure a primary color can be paired with a complementary neutral palette, but one cool needs to consistently dominate. There are some interesting case studies about companies who own a single color in their identity as opposed to direct competition with multiple colors. Like FedEx vs. UPS, for instance. FedEx (originally Federal Express) chose the shocking and vibrant orange and purple to really stand out in a boring office mail room. The colors gave significance and importance to the priority overnight letter that FedEx was so famous for. That strategy makes sense to me. When they rebranded to just “FedEx” they developed an interesting brand architecture system using different colors paired with the purple to delineate sub-brands (like home delivery, custom critical, etc). I remember studying this identity in school and reveling in the brilliance and beauty of it. However, now I question the color strategy. The rainbow mix-up is great for clarifying sub-brands in communication but the collateral damage comes at the expenses of the overall parent brand owning a single color. Contrast that strategy with FedEx’s biggest competitor UPS and you’ll find a single, traditionally unattractive, color that is completely unique and embraced by the brand. Interestingly enough UPS continues to be the market leader producing more revenue and market growth than Fed Ex. What can brown do for you? Apparently a lot.

Secondly, select a color that embodies the emotional persona of the brand. In our Western Culture, certain colors are perceived with certain qualities. We us an “emotional color wheel” to help us choose, objectively, which colors best align with what we want a brand to be known for. It helps remove the subjectivity of personal tastes, especially college football allegiances (like the beautiful Big Orange of the University of Tennessee). I am amazed at how many color decisions have been made for businesses based on sports team fandom.

Lastly, select a color that is competitive. The UPS brown is remarkably different than the FedEx Orange and Purple. Similarly, Starbucks is green, why? Mainly because no one else was. Dunkin’ Donuts (although having better and less expensive coffee) is orange and pink and not nearly as memorable, or successful, as the single green powerhouse of Starbucks. Mapping out the competitive color landscape is a useful tool in identifying any unclaimed territory.

By changing the way you look at color as a designer, you can produce work that is more effective, more valuable, and more easily sold to the client. It can also help you avoid that obnoxious Alabama fan/ client craving to see that next comp bleeding crimson red.

When selecting colors, use an emotional color wheel. It helps keep the design team and key stake holders objective and ensures that colors selected will align with core brand attributes.

Mapping the competitions use of color helps make sure that you’re differentiating your client and keeping things fresh.


Quick Tips
When selecting color, think about the emotional impact of your choices. Cultures around the world all have different associations with color. Make sure that you use one that resonates with the persona of the brand.

Dig Deeper!
Learn more about color at PRINT’s Color Conference, October 4–6, in New York at the Art Directors Club

For More Resources on Color

Color Inspirations: See top color palettes from the popular website, Pantone Essentials with Effects Package: Get Color Guides.
ColorLovers ColorSchemer Studio, A Professional Color-Matching Application

One thought on “Select Color With Purpose

  1. Lori Scheid

    Very well said Blake. About two year ago Case Western Reserve University did a rebrand, that had an extensive secondary color palette. With the recommendation of a branding consultant we eliminated the secondary colors and went with a very strict main color palette, focusing on our blue. You get creative in other aspects of your design and how you look at projects. Rather than flipping through the Pantone book and picking a color based on what you ate for dinner last night.