The Non-Designer's Guide to Choosing Basic Colors

This is part 3 of my series “How to Create a Design Style.” You can find the other posts in the series at these links:

After choosing your fonts, your colors are the next most important element to your design style.

And while there is a dizzying assortment of color options and palettes out there, this can actually be a fairly simple process.

The key is to know what colors to look for, how to understand color palettes, and then how to use the colors once you find the palette that works for you.

And the other key principle here is to keep it simple. Less is more definitely applies here — you don’t want to go overboard with your color.

When color is done right and used in a simple fashion, it can really make your graphics pop and give your business a classy, professional image.

Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing and using your colors:

1. Get clear on the mood you want to convey for your style.

Colors evoke feeling. Some colors give a sense of calm, while others give a sense of energy and action.

The colors you choose are going to create a certain mood and give your audience a certain feeling, so you definitely want to think through what that needs to look like for your style.

If you need help with this, I have some questions that you can answer here in this post that can get you started.

Brighter tones are more energizing and really pop. Muted tones tend to look more traditional and, depending on the shade, can give a more calming effect.

Here are some examples from Design Seeds:

Photo credit: @troy.archer

Photo credit: @theflowerjam

Photo credit: @elizabethmarkham

Photo credit: @622flowers

2. Learn how to "read" color palettes.

Color palettes can definitely be a bit confusing. But the trick is to know how to apply and use each color in the palette.

A great place for color inspiration, Design Seeds, usually has 5 or 6 colors to their palettes.

I’ll talk about this more below, but the key is to first decide on a main color that you want to go with. This will need to be a color that contrasts well with white, and then do a search for that color.

When you find palettes using your main color that fit the mood you’re trying to create, there should of course then be a swatch that represents your main color, and then other contrasting, or “accent”, colors around it.

Just choose the best 1 or 2 accent colors that are not too light, that contrast with or compliment your main color well, and will be visible enough on things like headers and backgrounds.

Then the other colors in the palette are usually on the lighter side, or are other variants on the main color or accents. Don’t feel like you have to use all of them, and in fact, you will want
to use any color other than your main color very sparingly. It can be easy to overdo it if you’re not careful.

These can work well for design elements like lines, boxes and backgrounds. The lighter shades can work well with darker text on top, and the darker shades work for using white text on top.

And the extra light shades can work really well for a light colored background option on a sales page or brochure.

3. Choose your main color first.

When you’re looking for colors for your style, you’re going to need to choose the one main color that you are going to use most prominently first. Then you can use that color to choose the others that will blend well with it, again, based on the mood and feeling you’re trying to create.

When you’re choosing your main color, definitely make sure it contrasts well with white. Don’t choose a color that is too light, or it will make any text that it’s used on unreadable.

You want to make sure the color is dark enough so that your headlines will be easy to read when the color is applied to them.

Stay away from lighter yellows, greens or other more pale shades as your main color.

4. Choose your accent color(s).

Accent colors are great to have and give more dimension to your designs. To choose accent colors, use your main color as a starting point and then choose colors that work well with that.

You will want to choose 1 or 2 accents at the most, and these colors will definitely affect the mood that your designs convey.

You can go 2 different ways with your accent colors. You can either choose a bright “complimentary” color — essentially the polar opposite of your main color, which generally creates a more vibrant look. Or you can choose colors that are closer in value to your main color, which gives a look that is more subdued.

For example:

Let’s assume you choose a dark blue for your main color. You could go the more vibrant route and choose oranges, golds or yellows for your accent, or you could go for a more calming look and use greens or purples. Or to make it really simple, you can just use different shades of the same blue.

Here are some examples of this from Design Seeds

Photo credit: @andrea_sopranzi

Photo credit: @chrismoon1969


Photo credit: @greenineverycolor


Photo credit: @emilycontephotography


Photo credit: @thebungalow22


Photo credit: @marjamatkalla

5. Use your color sparingly.

As I’ve mentioned, you definitely want to try to not go overboard using your color.

Just sprinkle it through enough and it will make your designs pop in a classy way.

You will want to use your main color most of the time on your headlines and subheads, and then let the bulk of your text and your content be a black or gray color. You can also use shades of gray to add interest to certain types of elements as well.

When you do use your accent color(s), us them very sparingly for things like buttons or links, and use the extra colors in the color palettes when needed on other design elements like lines, boxes and backgrounds.

6. Look for color inspiration.

While there are definitely many tools out there for finding color ideas, my personal favorite place for color palette inspiration is Design Seeds, as you can tell from this post.

I love the way they choose color palettes from life.

They take photos of real life places, objects and scenery, and draw color palettes from the colors in the photo. To me this is really helpful for finding colors that are harmonious, soothing and that make sense together and work together well. It always makes for very natural combinations.

In Conclusion

While choosing your colors will take a little time, they can actually be fairly simple to find with a little know-how. Just choose the main color that represents the mood you’re trying to create, then use that as a springboard to find palettes with accents to really flesh it out.

And again, always remember with using your color — less is definitely more.

Any questions about choosing colors? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

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