Choosing Colors

Choosing color in the icons you create shouldn’t just be a random process, and it’s not just about making something “pretty”. You don’t string random words together to form a sentence, each word is carefully chosen to convey what you’re trying to say. Similarly, color is a language that needs to be carefully considered to aid in communicating the intent of the icon. This week, I want to cover a couple of the things you should consider in your work in regards to color.

Colors in Culture

One of the things color does is aid in visual communication beyond just the basic shapes. We can take something as simple as a cloud and give it different meanings by just changing the color. In some cultures (a very important qualifier, I’ll get to that in a bit) a pink cloud may communicate femininity, and an orange cloud may represent something official or professional.

The challenging part of color however is that the language is not always universal. A color can mean different things in different cultures. For example, red means good luck in China, here in the United States it can come across as an aggressive color. However some colors, like blue, are considered positive pretty much universally (which is why so many of the icons on your smartphone are blue).

When picking colors it’s important to understand what they might mean to the potential audience. If you’re hired by a client to create an icon for a transit that will mainly operate in Germany you should take the time to understand what colors evoke positive romantic feelings in that culture. When designing for a more universal audience though, take the time to be creative and don’t just make another blue icon because it’s the safest option.

Complementary Colors

“Complementary color” is probably, at the very least, a vaguely familiar term to you. Put simply, complementary colors are a pair of colors that are visually compatible. Think of it as dating for colors! Some people believe when it comes to dating for humans, opposite’s attract! Wether you believe that or not, it’s definitely the case for colors. Any color’s ideal match is always on the opposite end of the color wheel.

You may also be familiar with the color wheel, but just to be sure let me give you a quick refresher. Like the name implies, the color wheel is a wheel of colors. Duh, right? Well the colors in the wheel are arranged along a spectrum to show the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and the hues that fall in between them.

This is very much a simplified example of finding the complementary colors. There are color wheels you can find online that are far more fleshed out, but even then it’s a relatively simple task to find compatible colors. However, for the best precision you should use software designed for creating color schemes. Personally, I use Spectrum, which is a Mac-only application. These applications will also help you find what are known as split complimentary colors, which can get a little overwhelming without any software aid.