Or, How to Choose the Best Palette for Your Project (Part 2)!
What takes a color palette from good to great?
To be honest? A lot of troubleshooting and care 💁
Yep, anticlimactic answer there. A successful color palette is directly tied to working hard.
What makes a color palette really strong is taking those extra steps to figure out the perfect balance of shades to nail the precise vibe you're looking for in the long term. If you've got a general idea that you want some purples, yellows, and warm supporting colors you're only partway there. Even if you know you want magenta, buttercup and primrose you're barely one hair further ahead. But you've got a nice vocabulary on your side! Bonus points for fancy words 💯💐
A truly balanced color palette is expressive and versatile all the way through, and chosen with a forward-thinking mindset of preparation and care.
What sort of forward-thinking steps? Are you just making up phrases now?
Oh come on! You know me better than that!
I actually do have a concrete set of steps that help guarantee I'm putting together a high-quality color palette that's here to rock your socks off for ages. These steps are all about turning your thoughts toward strategy and problem-solving for future issues you might encounter.
You know the basics of color theory. You know that the psychology of color is watery at best. And you know how absolutely important color is as one of the seven elements of art. You have all of the information in small pieces. Now you need to connect the dots and make a high-quality call!
So how do you put it all together? How do you make sure your palette is balanced? And what makes a palette versatile?
Aha! You've come to the right place.
Today I'm going to walk you through the 4 key steps you need to make sure you're really doing all you can to wrap up that palette for good.
ask yourself to find out if your palette is truly balanced and ready to go!
1. Get your colors visually all. in. one. place. now.
If you're a pro designer, you probably already have your color swatches in the same document. But if you're moving to finalize, it's extremely important to clear everything else away and focus on the colors alone for a while, without any other interference. I create an entirely new document with just the few hues I'm working with to slowly tweak them into place. When I feel like I've made progress, I look at them in combination with all the other brand elements again – and then it's back to tweaking, etc.
But! You don't have to be working with pro design software to nail this step.
One of my biggest tips EVER here for people who need to nail a color palette but aren't professional designers is to utilize Pinterest in unorthodox ways. That's right: Pinterest.
One of the best things about Pinterest is how visual it is – and that functionality makes it perfect for this task. Using a Pinterest board to collect your in-progress palette options is a great way to start figuring out if your palette is truly balanced or still needs some work.
When you've got everything in one location, it's easier to see how multiple colors look next to each other. Check out this board I put together to quickly access our HDco color hex codes when I need them (more on this cool trick here) –
Using this method to work with a palette that's still under development can give you a chance to identify any holes you might be facing. Does your board appear lopsided? Dense? Off-kilter? Too warm? Too bright? Too sleepy? You'll be able to tell when you've got everything rounded up in one place without additional distractions.
Which brings me to the next step!
2. Fiddle with those mofos
You probably know that a color palette should have at least three colors (we usually recommend somewhere between 3-6 colors for a diverse foundation). But you know what happens when you're working with changing lots of colors, all together, at the same time?
Changing one color, even slightly, can totally alter your palette's vibe.
You might like the change you've created. Or it might throw the entire thing off!
Experimenting is a good thing. It's what you want to be doing when you're putting a palette together! But because you have so many paths to could go down which could result in so many different options, you have a responsibility to explore those options enough so that you're able to make an informed decision. This is where the fiddling comes in! My advice:
Fiddle with those mofos like there's no tomorrow.
Making one small change can make or break your palette. You might discover that an absolutely amazing energy is only a shade away! Again, if you're a pro designer you're probably used to twiddling away in your swatches palette in one Creative Cloud program or another.
But once again, you don't have to be working with professional design software to achieve this step.
An awesome resource to help you visualize your options without any special software is ColorHexa. I absolutely love this site, and one big reason for that is because it lets you visualize similar colors, shades, and tints to the color you're looking at.
Say we were still determining the Hoot Design Co. color palette and I want to explore our main blue to make sure I understand all my options. ColorHexa has a great section on every color's page where it displays your color in the center of a succession of similar colors. This section can help you look at what those slight changes can mean for your palette:
Do you see how the above colors range from a green-blue on the left to a more cobalt on the far right? Ours is smack in the center – this lineup allows us to visually understand the difference that just half a step can make in our color's appearance!
Now, after you've sufficiently twiddled to make sure you understand why you've made your decisions and why you haven't chosen any of those other forking paths...
3. Consider all possible permutations
If you've gotten all the way down here to step 3, you're getting more and more comfortable with the palette you've created. You've got your 3-6 colors just about completely nailed down. But wait!
Now we have to start looking at what would happen if this palette was actually put into use. This is an absolutely crucial step in finalizing your palette – and is one students and non-pros skip over all the time.
I'm talking about permutations, my friends.
You probably remember learning about permutations from those math problems about combining people or things in different ways. For example, if you have three balls numbered 1, 2, and 3, how many different ways can you arrange them?
That's what considering all the possible permutations for your color palette is about.
You want to get into that mode of complex thinking as you're working toward wrapping up your palette. What would happen if I combined these colors in this order? That order? More of color A? Less of color B? These are the questions you need to be consciously asking yourself, and consciously signing off on.
But wait! There's more:
You need to consider more than just the colors themselves in this thinking.
What happens when you add text into the mix? Photographs? Illustrations? Patterns? Could text in color A be placed atop a background of color C? What about vice versa? Would it be readable? Pleasant? Could a pattern made using B and C appear next to that text? How would adding color A to photographs look? Permutations, people!
What's this obsession with what-if scenarios?
We go down the what-if rabbit hole because it's essential to understand all the restrictions you'd face if you actually started working with this palette.
So get started visualizing!
If two of your colors look like crap together but are okay when there's a third color added in, or when text is added into the mix, or when you're working with a pattern as well, your flexibility is going to be cut – you're never going to be able to use just those two alone without some mediator. And it's totally okay to have colors that can't combine in all ways, but you need to be aware of the palette's limitations before you fully commit! You are directly responsible for foreseeing, understanding and accepting the limitations you face by committing to your palette.
4. Walk away... then come back
Alright, finally, last step: Before you make any big commitment, there's really something to be said for peacing out for a bit and returning with fresh eyes.
Especially when you're working with something that requires so much back-and-forth, getting it out of your head is absolutely essential to making a clear judgement.
Take a break. Sleep on it.
Leave it alone long enough that you truly stop thinking about it.
Then, when you come back with a clear head, make a call!
True, you might come back and think Damn! That color palette looks even more awesome this morning! and be done with it.
But! There's always a chance you may come back and see something you totally hadn't considered before – maybe switching out the pink for orange, ditching the green or brightening up the red is exactly what the doctor ordered.
The moral to the story:
Establishing a color palette is one of the most exciting and most stressful parts of pulling together a full brand. There are so many options, so many paths to go down, and so many "what if?" questions that it can be tempting to say "Gaaaghhgghhhghh, this is good enough!" and move onto greener pastures.
But the fact is that a strong color palette is absolutely essential to quality design.
You can't hurry past the process of really nailing that color palette, or gloss over the particulars of your color balance, or rush through exploring the impact that your color choices today have on your brand's viability tomorrow.
Nope! This is one place it absolutely pays to be as thorough, careful, and balanced as possible. Thinking forward and engaging with those "what if?" questions is more important in determining your color palette than in any other aspect of visual branding.
Permutations, here we come!
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