When studying colour theory we are given an understanding of the colour wheel and the harmonious relationships that can be forged between these brothers of reflecting light… It is here that we are given a cheat sheet on how to use colour effectively to communicate the right message.

Below we use this knowledge to go behind the scenes of colour theory in logo design while looking at various case studies of logo designs that use these principles. Enjoy.

The Colour Wheel – Our Cheat Sheet.

Colour Wheels

This wheel, that shows the relationships of colours, is a handy little tool to understand. Without going into any great detail of how the colours of the wheel are established (which is pretty interesting to know), we’ll just tip or toes into the water.

The panels that have an outline above, with their linking lines, show the relationships colours have. For example, complementary colours are the colours directly opposite each other. In our illustration above (the first wheel highlights the relationship), red and green are directly opposite, so they’re complementary. Just as the blue on the left and the yellow on the right are complementary, the orange and light blue, and so on.

These aren’t the be-all and end-all of colour combinations obviously, but they’re good places to start when choosing what colours you might want to use for a project. As you’ll see in the following examples, sometimes you might use three out of four tetrad colours, or go for an analogous harmony but stretch it out one more and skip one.

The wheel is our simple guide into the world of colours – something to use when you find yourself in a place of bother, or something you may choose to ignore. With that in mind, sometimes one may decide to ignore the wheel, but work with colour meanings and psychology instead. It should be noted that it isn’t exactly a science. Ask a hundred people what red means and you’ll likely get dozens upon dozens of different answers – none wrong. But again, it’s a great starting point and gives you insight into how your audience may instinctively perceive something you’ve put together.

Colour Meanings & Theory

Colour can make or break a design so it is vital that you know what colours mean and what they can communicate. Below are some ‘meanings’ of colour. [Source]

  • Red evokes aggressiveness, passion, strength and vitality
  • Pink evokes femininity, innocence, softness and health.
  • Orange evokes fun, cheeriness and warm exuberance.
  • Yellow evokes positivity, sunshine and cowardice.
  • Green evokes tranquility, health and freshness.
  • Blue evokes authority, dignity, security and faithfulness.
  • Purple evokes sophistication, spirituality, costliness, royalty and mystery.
  • Brown evokes utility, earthiness, woodsy-ness and subtle richness.
  • White evokes purity, truthfulness, being contemporary and refined.
  • Gray evokes somberness, authority, practicality and a corporate mentality.
  • Black evokes seriousness, distinctiveness, boldness and being classic.

Visa – Complementary

Visa Complementary

This is a great place to start. This is as straight as it can be – direct complementary colours, no ifs, no buts. Yellow is directly opposite blue, so there isn’t a lot to talk about in this regard really, other than the yellow is a little orange, but let’s not too picky. Let’s have a look at the meaning of the colours.

Visa WheelBlue is a colour often associated with trust, loyalty, royalty, friendliness, wisdom and peace. It can also be associated with the less noble feelings such as depression, but given the context, not an association easily made—especially with our optimistic, wealthy and joyful yellow sitting calmly on the shoulder of the logo.

Remember, colours have a multitude of different meanings for different people – it’s all about context and the brand as a whole.

Wisdom, wealth and trust — what more could one ask for from a company at whom we throw wads of cash?


Samarra – Tetrad.

Image

Samarras WheelWhen it comes to tetrads, things can get a little dicey. Giving four colours equal footing is risky business, so it’s often better to have dominant colours and weaker colours – the Samarra’s logo is a good example of such a situation.

Our two dominant colours dance together as a perfect complementary pair, with the two others giving them a little support as minor players.

This isn’t exactly a perfect tetrad – our two minors are complementary to one another, but not perfect partners for the two majors in regard to a tetrad. They’re close, but off by one panel. The lighter orange is closer to red on our colour wheel and the blue is closer to green. In fact, the major colours are a little off as well, but being tints, we’ll give them a little room to move to help explain the harmony. It is a great example of taking colour theory as a base on which to work from but not necessarily to hold as gospel.


McDonalds – Loosely Analogous.

Image

How could I possibly write on colours in branding without making mention of one of the most effective uses of colour in history? No one short of the Nazis, terrifyingly enough, has managed to use a combination of colours in such a recognizable and powerful way.

McDonalds WheelWhen I was younger I saw a documentary in which the McDonalds logo was discussed. I particularly remember a man making mention of the feeling that the red and yellow evokes – hunger. At the time, this idea fascinated me for at least a moment as I remember wondering how that could even be. Being a child, I probably put it down to magic or elves or.. something. It’s fun being a kid. Flash forward however many years and we have Wikipedia, with, under it’s entry for colour psychology; “Studies show that red can have a physical effect, increasing the rate of respiration and raising blood pressure; red also is said to make people hungry.” So maybe not elves after all.

Red can understandably cause a feeling of hunger—it’s the colour of the flesh, blood and health – maybe it isn’t only a modern day thing, maybe it’s an evolutionary association we have? Red also cues thoughts of speed, which is what fast food chains pride themselves on.

Then there’s the yellow. Again, Wikipedia informs us that yellow is the colour of joy and happiness, sociability and friendship. With their focus on children on the playground and friends grabbing a quick bite whenever out, yellow seems like an obvious choice. If you can associate your business with being part of any outing routine, you’re doing something right.

Ironically, while this combination has undoubtedly influenced many, many fast food chains, it’s also the colours of danger, death and panic – although some do think of these when eying the golden arches. There is an example further down of how pre-existing connections can be ignored, with the FedEx logo.

Or, you know, it’s just ketchup and mustard.


Koloroo – Tetrad.

Image

This is a fantastic combination of colours – they scream Australia. Sunburnt deserts, beautiful beaches, nature and sun – it doesn’t get much more Australian than that. Symbolism: check.

Koloroo Wheel

Light colours that overlay and dance with one another in the shape of one of our treasures. If you’ll notice, the red of the head and feet of Skippy contrast well with the light blue that dresses the name. If the colours were in reverse order within the illustration, this one might have come off as tacky – looking as if the intent were to have the colours graduate between the illustration and the text. Not a great look in my opinion – might even have looked like a printing error. The contrast shows a deliberate thought of how the illustration and the text would interact with one another visually.

As for harmony? Simple – it’s a perfect tetrad.


9Rules – Complementary with a slide.Image

From red to green, from flame to flora. And an interesting use of complementarily harmonious colours.

9Rules WheelRed and green are perfect complementary colours, with all those between in our logo hitting almost all other colours (in a 12 panel colours wheel) between them. A lovely use of riding the spiral of colours in an effort to evoke passion (the red), growth (the graduation of size and change in colours being in step) while representing nature (the leaf) and gentleness – not often the feeling one gets from a technology company.

It’s often good to go against the grain, as I found with the next logo.


FedEx – Kinda, sorta, analogous.Image

Orange and purple are analogous at best – you know, if you skip a couple of steps and make your purple closer to blue than red. But colour harmony isn’t the reason these players has been brought to the grounds today. No, it’s because of the power they have together through the strength of the branding used by this shipping giant.

FedEx WheelColour harmony theory might not work in favor of this combination, and nor does colour psychology to any great extent, no matter how many drops I try to squeeze from various sources around the web.

The colours just work. Neither is weaker than the other, neither one quite what you’d expect from a shipping company. The branding is the opposite of what companies following McDonalds did – it doesn’t go with the expected. It isn’t the standard blue and red of mail delivery.

Choosing the opposite of the norm, going against the standard or expected, helps set a strong contrast between you and them. It helps you stand out. While everyone else might be blue, you’re purple, them red, you orange. Not a great departure from the norm really, but one strong enough to make a difference.


Sports Link – Split Complementary.

Image

Another almost perfect example of colour harmony. Sports Link uses a split complementary.

Sports Link WheelThe symbolism of the colours works well for the client too. The blue symbolises tranquility, trust, coolness, wisdom and mobility. The green; life, nature, spring, youth, good luck and vigor. The red is associated with passion, energy and strength. I don’t want to say perfect, but for a sporting company—well, you’ll excuse me for thinking it might just be.

The colours are light without being too vibrant and shocking, helping ground the company as a serious business. This combination of colours is one you could probably easily find on anything that is aimed at children, from movie posters to toy packaging. But the subdued, almost subtle colours, gives this logo some feet on the ground.

It all just fits, doesn’t it?

Rules are Made to be Broken

Clearly, the rules that colour harmony lays before us aren’t laws. At best, the are merely guides, to be followed if one chooses, but also ignored or used as nothing more than a starting point. The same can be said of the meanings behind colours. Different cultures see the symbolism of different colours through different eyes. Different, different, different. But this isn’t a bad thing by any means.

Red and blue were traditional colours for mailing, then FedEx came along. McDonalds set a standard in using red and yellow for the fast food industry. This is where the beautiful spark of creative thinking starts to ignite. Nothing is set in stone. It use to be that light blue was the colour of girls, and pink the colour of boys. Things change.

The designer is in a position of power because of this. If something is considered and understood, then a monumental shift can occur in the result. Just because every other business in your client’s area uses green, it doesn’t mean you need to develop a logo of green. Discover why they use it, their reasoning for it, and see if you can give the same effect with red, or blue or orange.

In closing, it might be best to say that if there were a strong platform on which the mantra ‘to break the rules, you must know them’ can sit upon, then surely it is the platform of colour.


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45 Comments For This Post

  1. Lu Says:

    Great article (and awesome job on the new site). Color is definitely a fun element to play with and it is interesting to see how much difference it can make in a brand. Keep up the great work ^_^

  2. Serj Says:

    another one bits my feed:D.keep the info coming, great job!

  3. Shane Hudson Says:

    Really useful guide, thank you!

  4. Victoria Says:

    This article is a really great resource. Thanks!

  5. Alex Charchar Says:

    Hey Lu, Serj, Shane and Victoria,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for the kind words :)

    and thanks again jacob, this was a fun one to write for ya.. I’m looking forward to bouncing some ideas around in the near future to write a few more for you :)

  6. Jacob Cass Says:

    Alex,
    No worries and please do send the ideas through, I remember you having a few great other ideas last time, so feel free to use them too!

  7. Rucha Says:

    Extremely useful tips…
    FOr young designers like me who are just getting into the industry full time and interseted in doing branding and indentity this post is very enriching.
    HAve been a regular at JCD reading the articles
    And Jacob…I wish you all the success with this one too…
    keep it coming and keep it going..

  8. RebelDesigner Says:

    Great info, keep it up. By the way I’ve been working on one full range project and the first thing that I made was there logo using 4 basic colors and I’m really happy to see them as “Tetrad” in your theory… Without actually knowing it, so I assume being designer is sometimes you simply rely on your eyes… what looks good and what doesn’t cause this was the theory how I made that logo… even thou all objects have rational with it… they are not just symbols… Any how thanks and goodluck for your new website… I dont understand how you can manage it, I want to create my website from last 5 years and still couldn’t proceed…

  9. Rich Bailey Says:

    Wow This article is extremely helpful for me as a designer. I’m currently developing a site of my own which i plan to launch in March so I find this as a valuable aid in everything down to logo design and layout colors. I’ll be happy to promote your site once I get mines up :)

  10. David Millar Says:

    I never thought about the color sets in these logos.

    My site uses mostly just green, white, and black. I really should try some of the concepts illustrated here to add other colors to the design.

  11. Esben Thomsen Says:

    Very informative article and love the examples! A idea for a followup could be logos that breaks the rules.

    I have always thought its so funny how different cultures defines colours meaning and personally Im careful to use terms for these. For instance yellow is the colour of friendship in Denmark, cowardice in Britain and horror/crime in Italy – three very different interpretation. The fun part is that the way colours work together is more or less universal.

    I wonder how colourblind interprets colour theory?

  12. Brad D Says:

    I do have to say that sometimes it is easy to not put this thought into practice, but it always shows. Great start to what I think will be a great blog!

  13. DVQ Says:

    Nice article. I really like Samarra’s article.

  14. DVQ Says:

    edit: Samarra’s logo. Doh

  15. Alex Charchar Says:

    Thanks for the kind comments everyone :)

    Rebel — i think you’re right in that a lot of it comes naturally to those who have spent time looking at graphic design.. you start to naturally adapt to colour combinations — your instinct is sharpened.

    Rucha
    Study up like crazy! Just writing this article made me think about colours differently.. if there was one thing I wish I had done more of when studying design was study more design ;)

    Hey Esben,
    It was surprising to see how many logos broke the rules completely but were still beautiful colour wise.. So yeah, will have to think about what logos are way off map colour harmony wise but are still gorgeous :)
    When i was studying colour theory during my course a few years ago I found it amazing the differences between cultures in relation to colours.. Would make branding an international company a little harder ;)

    I know what you mean David, sometimes you fall into a habbit of black & white and red or blue or green or whatever.. It’s easy to get comfortable with something that works, isn’t it?

    Brad — the logos that I found most interesting where the ones that looked as if the designers began with this kind of theory but then bounced off it and played around a little, and your right, it really shows

    I have to agree with you there DVQ, the Samarra logo was one of my favorites in this list.. something about it just hits the right spot, doesn’t it?

  16. ts Says:

    Colours are also cultural. White in some cultures represents death and is not looked upon favourably…

  17. Chaitanya VRK Says:

    Good insight showing the effectiveness of color in logo design.

  18. daphne Says:

    Interesting, this article. I’m working on a computer solutions company logo at the moment without much briefing and was wondering if it was better to have it as a two colour or to add more to it since the company’s website has only about 3 main colours…

  19. Alex Charchar Says:

    Hi Ts – yeah, you’re spot on. I once read a book on how to brand across cultures and there is a huge amount of research needed to develop a logo that is seen as positive, or at least neutral, in the major markets..

    Chaitanya, I’m glad you enjoyed the article :)

    I’m glad you found the article interseting Daphne. Perhaps pick their most dominant colour on the website and go with that? Or perhaps keep in mind that the colours you develop for their logo might become part of their overall brand and the website change to match the logo?

  20. abdusfauzi Says:

    the article is great! no wonder these people produce awesome logos. kudos!

  21. Alex Charchar Says:

    Hey Abdus, glad you liked it! Knowing this sort of thing definitely make it easier to produce something beautiful, huh?

  22. ScareYourParadox Says:

    I believe that Fed Ex would count as a modified color scheme possibly? I’m still in school for design, and in my color class this past semester, we identified a modified color scheme basically as an expanded analogous pallete.

  23. Clippingimages Says:

    This article is really great … Some effective logo design concept reveals

  24. nil Says:

    this is a wonderful site. lot of knowledge we get. this site helped me a lot on assignment to find out the meaning bank conveys trough their logos.also got to know many things.m really tahnkful to the maker of this site.keep publishing such interesting facts.

  25. Anthony Says:

    nice article, I’ve seen similar, but this one is more in depth. also, I ran across a piece speaking of the right arrow in the negative space of the E and X in fed ex which can be translated to movement and forward thinking, cool stuff!

  26. Manoj Ramchandani Says:

    What an interesting article on color chart used in logo design. I agree colors are important in creating the right emotion and mood in other words communicating the brand’s message towards people. The right color used in a logo will help attract people’s attention. I stumbled upon Logo Design Creation on the internet, and I found them to be professional and creative. Their creativity in terms of shapes and colors presented in their logo design are amazing. Logo Design Creation is an exciting company with great service and prompt responses! This has been my third logo with them. And I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to have creative logo designed in affordable price.

  27. Chandramouli Says:

    I was searching for the author name for sometime thinking who wrote such a great article, and then I noticed your reply to few comments! Great job Alex. And love your site which is very inspiring too.

  28. logolabs Says:

    Great Article colors plays an important role in logo design!

  29. kelly Says:

    Having worked with colour & colour forecasting I understand the power of colour, and often the Less is More approach is the best. A logo must be powerful as a black & white composition before you add the colour. But get the colour wrong after that and it can really make a good logo go flat. Really good article.

  30. Leeds Acupuncture Says:

    Very useful – simple and effective – just designed my new logo! – Thanks

  31. Logo Says:

    Verry fine logos round here. I like the Sports link design best, seems that i have much to learn around here.

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    Excellent Job. I really appreciate this. Thank you so much for your guidelines. I am gonna bookmark your site.

  33. semanticppv Says:

    Through this i can able to know to use color on logo design, Thanks for your hard work on this post.

  34. skybrand Says:

    What you share is useful for me. thank you you very much

  35. Prasad Pawar Says:

    I’m Going to use Tetrad in Our Logo

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