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Jessie Lacey
by Jessie Lacey
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A Crash Course In Color Theory, Part One: Color Space & Visible Light

01/09/2014
A Crash Course In Color Theory, Part One: Color Space & Visible Light

Color is a powerful tool in graphic design. It can be used to emphasize elements, attract attention, evoke emotion, organize content and help a design look aesthetically pleasing. The study of color has been around for a long time. The concept of the color wheel was invented by Sir Isaac Newton at age 23 in 1666 when he bent the color spectrum (the range of all visible light).

So what? Why should I care? Because color matters deeply. Color is one of the most effective ways to convey a message or get a prospect's attention. Color is the visual component people remember most about a brand followed closely by shapes and symbols, then numbers and finally words. Roughly 6 in 10 folks will decide if they are attracted or not to a message based purely on color. Moreover, color increase brand and mark recognition by up to 80% (University of Loyola Study). If a picture is worth a 1000 words, a picture with colors is worth a 10x, memory-wise. Psychologists have documented that "living color" does more than appeal to the senses. It boosts memory for scenes in the natural world. Ads in color are read up to 42% more often than the same ads in black and white (Strathmoor Press, 4/97). Color addresses one of our basic neurological needs for stimulation. With all this at stake, knowing how to use color is super important.

RGB color is obtained by light emission—additive color where mixing light results in color and all colors add up to white. RGB is used in LCD monitor technology and projected light. CMY is a subtractive color space where color is created by subtracting parts of the spectrum of light and the light reflected back to you is a color. CMY is used for pigments, dyes and inks. So, all printing process uses Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black ink to create color. Mixing all the colors produces almost black (I say "almost" because true black has not been discovered in nature...yet). The differences between RGB and CMY(K) are important based on the media you want to create.

Different values of three characteristics are used to define color: hue, saturation and brightness. Humans are believed to perceive 10 million colors, those with "normal" color vision that is. A rare number of humans can see a lot more due to a genetic mutation called Tetrachromats—sort of like super-tasters but for eyes, and much more rare and dependent on sex chromosomes (XX only). Many humans see a lot less colors, which is called color blindness. Red Green Color blindness is predominantly found only in men. Blue color blindness is rare and impacts about 5% of those with color blindness. In most Caucasian societies up about 9% of men suffer (Asians: 5%, Africans: 4%, Basque: 4%, Middle Eastern: 8%, Mestizo/Latin America: 2.5%, Punjab: 5%). In Eskimos the incidence is only 1%. There are different types of color blindness but either way, it is always something to consider in all aspects of design. Road signs should be easy to read no matter what your color perception abilities are, street lights are often red, green and yellow, which to the color blind look very similar. In road signs emphasis is placed on contrast, shape and position. When a not-insignificant subset of your demographic possibly has a color deficiency, it’s worth investing a little time into fine-tuning your message for every one to see without turning into color blandness .

Understanding how color renders relating to your application not only can save you time but also money. Not all designers are proficient in digital and print. The very best designers test color and resolutions across the board—on different screen resolutions as well. Brands and color are inextricably linked because color offers an instantaneous method for conveying meaning and message without words. A mark (name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them) is intended to identify an organization's products or services. Branding and marks need to be consistent.

With so much at stake, getting color right is important. Print and digital mistakes are easy to avoid when one knows their medium well. These are the most common mistakes that we notice:

  • Working with on old cheap monitor
  • Working only with a fancy monitor
  • Not calibrating monitors
  • Changing default color properties in Photoshop, Illustrator...
  • Designing for print without color proofing enabled
  • Not paying very close attention to the real print proof of your design
  • Designing in CMYK color mode in Photoshop - work in RGB mode with Color Proofing and convert to CMYK
  • Designing with default application color swatches
  • Not using a hue-saturation-brigtness (HSB) color mixer

Good designers follow best practices and rarely make these mistakes. A bachelor's degree in graphic design is generally required to become a graphic designer. Look to make sure that your designer has a range of coursework in studio art, design history, typography, symbology, corporate identity, psychology, communication, problem-solving, and analytics (yes, analytics - measuring to see if the design works). Graphic designers come in all shapes and sizes: freelancers, small web designers, large design agencies, designers that have just left college, and designers with decades of experience. Choosing the right type of designer will play a big part in you getting a solid finished result for your project. No-one likes paying too much for a design; however quality does come at a cost.

I have developed a quick and dirty reference guide for color theory. This is part one of a three part (possibly more!) in this crash course. When it comes to color, I have a lot to say. We at Dirigo Design & Development believe in sharing, so I have included a handy large-resolution reference guide. Enjoy!

Color Theory Infographic

Download the printable PDF , print it at 12" x 18", laminate it! It's that good.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Color Harmony & Combinations and Part Three: The Psychology of Color. Things get magical.

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