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How to Choose the Right Logo Color

By Terri Stone

Have you ever designed an identity and gone blank when it was time to pick a color palette? With the entire spectrum at your disposal, it can be tough to select just one or two colors. Although color may seem like an open brief, there is a logical process to follow that will help. We interviewed industry experts and boiled down their advice to three important rules.

1. START IN BLACK AND WHITE

“The idea should precede the palette,” says David Airey, a graphic designer and the writer behind Logo Design Love. “An idea will always be more memorable than a color: The bitten apple, the hidden arrow, a smile from a to z.”

Everyone interprets color differently. (I don’t mean color-blindness, although that can be a factor, too.) When you present initial concepts to the client in black and white, you avoid a potential pitfall. For example, someone may have fond memories of a blue childhood toy, while another person may associate the same shade with a hated school uniform. “Everyone has an opinion on color,” says designer and typographer Juan Carlos Pagan. “I like to leave that conversation until we’ve figured out whether the mark is communicating the right thing.”

We associate color with all of these iconic logos, but the concepts don't require bright colors to work.

Kit Hinrichs, principal and creative director of Studio Hinrichs, agrees. “We always show it in black and white or maybe a single color. And if we’re showing variations of a logo, it’s always in the same color. That’s because someone may hate red, and we’re showing you the variations in red, but at least you hate each variation equally.”

2. USE COLOR TO STAND OUT FROM THE COMPETITION

When you and your client have agreed on a concept, it’s time to consider how the competition uses color.

Debbie Millman recommends that brands adopt a strong, ownable color palette. “You have to create something that is distinctive enough so the brand won't be confused with other brands.” (Millman is an artist, author, brand consultant, and radio show host.)

While at Sterling Brands, Debbie Millman worked with Christine Mau on the visual identity for No More, an effort to end sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. “We wanted a color that wasn’t used as much in the nonprofit space, where you have the red dress and the red and pink ribbons,” says Millman.

Armin Vit (co-founder of the logo review site Brand New and its parent company, Under Consideration) points to phone service providers as an example of color’s importance in a crowded marketplace. “You know that yellow is for Sprint, magenta is for T-Mobile, and blue is for AT&T,” he explains. “It's an easy way of owning a piece of the pie within a given industry and marking your territory. If you’re out on the street and see a yellow cellphone ad, you know it's going to be Sprint, not T-Mobile.”

This example demonstrates that color may be arbitrary but still successful. “I don't think yellow says anything about Sprint,” Vit continues. “The Sprint logo could be green and it would have a similar effect. We assign value to a color based on the behavior of the company, not so much on the hues. The IBM logo is blue—why? There was nothing blue about typewriters when the logo was first introduced, and there’s nothing blue about what IBM does now, but it's a corporate color that we associate with the brand.” Millman concurs that it’s possible to manufacture meaning: “It's not the mark, it’s the marketing.”

Some clients are more comfortable blending in. “We had a situation with a bank that wanted blue because they thought blue projected safety,” Hinrichs remembers. Because blue is overused in banking, Hinrichs instead suggested red. The client countered that in the financial world, red means red ink, a negative. “We did a color study that showed that while blue is safe and solid, in some cases, it’s thought of as being a color of impotence.” That bank’s signature color is now red.

Of course, some clients come to you with established corporate colors. When those colors aren’t effective, designers must walk a delicate line. Hinrichs says, “If they have equity in that color, but you think it doesn’t stand out, try to educate the client as to why they may want a range of that color. If it’s green, maybe you make it a darker or brighter green.“

Studio Hinrichs created the identity for the California Academy of Sciences. “This single entity has three colors, each one representing a different part of the museum,” says Hinrichs.

3. CONSIDER THE CONTEXT

In addition to analyzing the competition, designers must also think about where a logo will appear. Take this scenario:

A new hair salon comes to you for a logo. It will be on business cards and a sign over the door, and in newspaper ads. A few years later, the flourishing salon has its own website, a healthy presence on Instagram and Pinterest, and it advertises online and in print. When the salon becomes a national franchise, the logo is all over the appointment-booking mobile app, and the company launches a branded line of shampoos and conditioners.

Does the color you chose work in all of these situations?

“Color's very contextual,” says Jessica Helfand, co-founder of Design Observer and teacher at Yale’s schools of art and management. “It's one thing to spec a blue; it's another thing to put that blue next to an orange. It depends on the paper it's on, the screen it's on, the fidelity of all kinds of appliances it will appear on. In the old days, maybe a logo had to work on the side of a truck and on a t-shirt. Now it has to work small and big and in mobile. It gets shared, it gets hash-tagged. You can't color-correct it. And that's only going to become more complex.”  

“Mobil’s red circle has stood the test of time,” says Jessica Helfand.

That doesn’t mean you give up and give in. Helfand’s advice is to be sure the mark stands on its own, regardless of color fidelity. “If a solution only works in color, then it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t carry its weight.”

And it is possible to plan ahead. Hunter Tura, president and CEO of Bruce Mau Design, is working on one such project for a performing arts institution. “They already have a set of colors associated with the brand,” he says. “We’ve created a palette of complementary colors and tints of the original colors, so they’ll go from five brand colors to 30. That allows them to work well with a lot of different partners and adapt to almost any kind of content needs related to the performing arts and arts education.”

Color was essential to the identity of Sasaki, a global planning and design practice. “They were working in a range of environments, and color was a device to capture that,” says Tura.

As long as you design with flexibility in mind, changing technology is less of a concern, as are aspects such as the geographical significance of certain colors. Besides, says Vit, “In terms of brands, the borders have opened so much. We're all exposed to so much more.”

“Lately, we’re seeing fewer colorful logos with an ‘Everybody is welcome, let's all cheer for the world’ kind of look,” Vit says. “That trend began in earnest with Airbnb and could possibly be traced back to Walmart’s happy yellow asterisk and leaner wordmark that changed in 2008 from a monolithic, uppercase wordmark. Things have turned more serious again, and most companies want to convey more than just being your friend on Instagram.”

WANT ADVICE ON TYPE AND LOGOS?

Logo design is a complicated subject. See how our panel of experts answered questions about working with type in the companion article, “Using Type in Logo Design.”  

We know you have strong opinions on logos. Tell us your personal favorite logo on Twitter or Instagram and include the hashtag #logomonth, or simply leave a comment below. We’ll compile the top ten into a poll and put it up for a vote later this month.