Creating a Color Palette

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”
— Oscar Wilde


You know it: colors are powerful. They evoke an emotional response, they appeal to your unconscious, they can certainly set the tone, literally, for a brand. But do you need a set palette for your’s or can you just pick what looks good to you? When defining a look and feel for your project or your brand, color should most definitely play a big part, and coming up with a palette for primary and secondary colors that are used across your communications helps to unify your look - and it can help to communicate your values and positioning in a subtle but impactful way.

Here are some pointers for what to keep in mind when looking at colors for a project or a brand:

  • choose a set of primary and secondary colors
  • choose several neutrals and one or two accent colors
  • be sure include a mix of lighter and dark tones
  • for web sites, define beforehand how colors are used: text, callouts, quotes, headlines, backgrounds etc, so the overall effect is balanced with clear hierarchy
  • pay attention to colors’ inherent message: warm or cold, delicious, fresh, punchy or elegant, etc., being aware of common associations, especially in the world of food
  • sufficient contrast between different design elements, foreground and background is critical for legibility, especially for text


Typically, your chosen color palette will be defined in several ways to assure consistent application across screen and various printing technologies. Each color is defined through

  • PMS or Pantone number for larger-run offset printing and as the standard to compare to
  • CMYK (4-color for offset or digital printing), with values for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black
  • RGB for general screen applications like Powerpoint presentations, giving values for Red, Green and Blue
  • HEX color for web use, with a nice number/letter combination to define the color (there are 16,777,216 possible hex code combinations!)
  • Color Saturation which is measured in % and it defines a range from pure color (100%) to white (0%). In other words, saturation measures how vivid and rich a color is: e.g., neon colors are very saturated, while pastels are less saturated.

Marketo has put together a great overview of basic color characteristics:

If you’re working on your own color palette, you can get great inspiration from Pinterest, and Adobe Color is an incredible app that lets you capture photos and then converts various points within that photo to a color palette that you can save in your Adobe Cloud account for sharing or later use.

Just training your eye to look around you and discover interesting color combinations can be a great start. And of course, if you need help pulling it all together, there’s a designer nearby who thrives on working with color. ;-)