How to choose colours that match

Experienced designer

This is a guest post by Annette Peppis. Annette leads a virtual team at Annette Peppis & Associates, a creative hub of established publishing industry experts who create books, branding, marketing material and design templates for leading publishers, business start-ups and SMEs. Keep in touch with her by subscribing to her bi-monthly emails and receive your free Font Quiz.

Do you have an in-house designer at your publishing house? If not, are you ever asked to do small design jobs yourself? Knowing about choosing colours will be a skill that will really help you.

You might need to match your design to your company logo, create an internal document reflecting the colours specified in your brand guidelines, or use type which compliments an image; all these tasks require a basic knowledge of colour.

I’ve been lucky enough to learn about colour, during my A level Art studies, my degree course and throughout my career. But what if you don’t know anything about colour theory or colour psychology? Fear not, help is at hand. There’s a great free resource to help you: the Adobe Kuler colour wheel. There are several ways to use this.

Method 1: matching a colour you like

When you click through to the colour wheel, you’ll see something like this:

1 Analogous pastel colours

Click on the middle circle (with a bold white outline) and move it around until you get to your favourite colour. The further into the centre of the circle you go, the paler your base colour will be, so if you like strong colours, drag the circle to the outside. I decided to use a bright orange which I chose by dragging the circle to the top right of the colour wheel (about 1 o’clock). I could have also typed in the CMYK values or the hexadecimal code number (only recommended for design techies), In the box on the left, I selected ‘Analogous’, which means colours that are close to each other. The palette looked like this.

2 Analogous colours

Next, I tried Monochromatic, which showed shades (darker) and tints (paler) of the same or similar colours. This is good for making a harmonious scheme, and if you want to match colours in your branding.

3 Monochromatic colours

Next, I tried Triad, which chooses colours 120 degrees from each other. You can get some very unusual combinations here that you wouldn’t normally try:

4 Triad colours

My fourth experiment was with complimentary colours – colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel. I really like complimentary colours and use them a lot – they can be very vibrant. Not everyone’s cup of tea, though:

5 Complimentary colours

Next I tried compound colours. I’ve no idea what this algorithm is based on! All the colours are in the same half of the spectrum and of differing shades and tones. I’m not quite so keen on these:

6 Compound colours

Finally, I clicked on shades, which are the same colour but mixed with varying degrees of black. The results can be quite sombre, but will suit some moods:

7 Shades of colours


Method 2: matching the colours of a photo

At the top right of the screen, you will see a little camera icon. Click this, and it will prompt you to upload a picture (in jpg format) from your device. It will then sample 5 colours from your image and give you the option of colourful, bright, muted, deep or dark colours. Try it! This feature would be especially useful if you were creating social media graphics based on an image.

You can check out the colour wheel here:

8 Matching colours in a photo
If you don’t want to use the Adobe tool, there are a number of alternatives: Paletton which has a standard colour wheel, Coolors which will generate a scheme for you and Colormind which can suggest different shades for separate areas of your design.

Now I’m going to let you into a secret

A few years ago, I used to work on a BBC Good Food cookery book series. The basic design for the whole series was the same, but each new book had a new title, a new picture and a new colour scheme. I used to have to supply several colour schemes each time I designed a new cover. For one of the books, I submitted 5 of my own schemes and 5 Adobe Kuler ones. Guess which ones got shortlisted? Surprisingly, they were all mine. So, although these tools are great, you can always improve on them!

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