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How to Create a Color Palette

One of my favorite things I get to do at UnderBelly Creative is creating color palettes. There are two main reasons I love this task.


  1. It almost always feels like magic. But like, Las Vegas magic where you know a lot of practice and failure has led to something that appears effortless and impossible.

  2. I am still always shocked by how much simply changing a couple of colors can completely change a brand and design.


So in this post I’m going to reveal some of the magicians secrets as well as provide some concrete examples along the way.


 

Let's just jump right in.


The hardest part is always starting a new color palette. One of the tricks we used a lot early on is using a photo as the base for the color palette. What do I mean by this? I would use Unsplash or other stock photo websites to search for a photo that evoked the feeling that I’m looking to create for a brand. Are we trying to evoke a sense of calm, empowerment, friendliness, wit? Do we want the brand to feel like a night out in the city or a morning walk in the mountains?


If you are trying to imagine these colors into existence, it can be extremely challenging. But when looking at beautiful photos that already have a great composition, it allows the juices to start flowing. From there, I will literally drag the image into the free Adobe Color tool and extract the colors from the image. Again, this is meant to be a starting point that kicks off inspiration. From here, it’s largely rinse and repeat. And you don’t have to stick to exclusively photos. You can find colors from graphics, illustrations, and websites to find specific HEX codes.




The next step is where the practice comes in because creating a powerful color palette isn’t simply taking the colors from an Unsplash photo. It’s combining the colors in new and interesting ways to create the very specific, unique feeling that you want customer to feel when engaging with your brand or design.


When it comes to creating a color palette here are just a few tips that to consider:


  • Unless you are very comfortable using color, try keeping your color palette to 5 or 6 colors including your black & white.

  • With that, by changing your black and white from true black (#000000) and true white (#FFFFFF), you can soften or sharpen your color palette.


Color palette featuring bright blue, light blue, dark green, bright green, orange and true black and white.
True black and white


Color palette featuring bright blue, light blue, dark green, bright green, orange and not black and white.
Not true black nor white

  • Softer, more pastel colors tend to feel friendlier and more like drinking a cup of tea while brighter, more intense colors tend to feel closer to a shot of espresso or maybe whisky.

  • A way to add something a little interesting to your palette is to have a bit of a monochromatic moment, think a dark forrest green and light mint green.

  • Try to add some luminance variation within the colors meaning some brighter colors and some lighter colors to create a palette with more depth


5-color color palette featuring a blue/purple, red and green.
No monochrome elements nor luminous variation

8-color color palette with various mustard greens, oranges and blues.
Monochrome elements with luminous variation

  • Test your colors using the free accessibility feature within Adobe Color to ensure readability when layering your colors, especially in the case of text and icons.

  • To make using the colors easier, choose 1 or 2 colors to be your primary color(s) and the rest to be your accent colors.

  • Play with the order and combination that you have your color palette. The way you perceive a color will change depending on what colors are around it.


6-color color palette.

Same 6 colors in a different order to showcase how different colors effect our perception of the color.
Same colors, different order

  • Create a color combination guide to help you remember which colors work with each other and which don’t.


Just like mastering a card trick or any skill, it takes time and practice and creating a lot of ugly combinations before it feels like magic. While I can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat, I can change the feel of your brand with a few HEX codes which is basically the same thing.






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