There are plenty of places to find color palette inspiration for your brand. But if you’re new to design and haven’t taken an art class since primary school, a great way to start is by kicking it old school with the color wheel.
In this post, I’ll walk you through some of the traditional approaches to palette building using the color wheel and provide some handy tools that can help make your life easier.
I created a free tool to help you create color palettes easily using Canva and the color theories discussed below. Here is an overview video of how to use the tool, sign up below to get it sent to your inbox!
Saturation and Vibrancy
Before we dig into the color wheel examples, I wanted to discuss two other key components of color palette choice and design: saturation and vibrancy.
The easiest way to think about the two concepts is a bit like starting with a true color and mixing in white or black paint.
When we talk about saturation or desaturation, it is a bit like starting with a rich fully concentrated version of a color and mixing in white paint to ultimately end up with something that’s a washed-out or pastel version.
Often, colors with less saturation feel softer, have a calming effect, or even feel like they have a slower pace. Think about colors frequently used for spas or to decorate a baby nursery.
The sister concept to saturation is color vibrancy.
The most vibrant version of a color will often be nearly neon in nature, whereas the muted version would be like mixing in black paint to dull down the color until it is a nearly black version of the true color. Like saturation, something that is muted down can feel more grounded or reserved, whereas highly vibrant colors feel almost electric and high energy.
We frequently see tech companies or sports-related brands use a very vibrant color as a pop paired with white and black neutrals. More vibrant colors can also invoke a sense of fun and playfulness for your brand.
If you’re wanting a brand color palette that feels balanced, consider building your brand color palette using a combination of desaturated or muted colors along with a more vibrant color to act as an accent.
Tertiary Color Palettes
We create tertiary color palettes using any of the color wedges to the left or right of your primary colors (yellow, red, or blue). Below, you can see an example color palette I created using the triad that is selected in the image above. The second one uses the magenta, goldenrod yellow, and turquoise blue triad.
Complementary Color Palettes
Complementary color palettes are ones that we often see used by brands out in the wild. Because they are pairing colors from families on opposite sides of the color wheel, these palettes provide a lot of visual interest and contrast without feeling disjointed. Think about Tide using orange and blue, or Mountain Dew using green and red.
In the below examples, I have built one palette using the blue and orange chose above and another created using the indigo and goldenrod segments. We can see that this type of palette immediately provides visual contrast, but by selecting only a few colors does not feel like a rainbow or grab bag approach.
Analogous Color Palettes
Another popular color pairing option comes from analogous color groups on the color wheel. Build an analogous palette by using the three color wedges that live closest together any way around the wheel. I would consider monotone color palettes, built solely on a singular color family, to be a sister of the analogous palette.
You will end up with a very cohesive and harmonious palette if you choose to try out an analogous grouping. One way that you can add a certain level of contrast to this type of palette is by adjusting saturation and vibrancy, like I have done in the examples below.
Additional Design Considerations
I have touched on it a few times throughout this post, but another element to have in mind when building a strong brand palette is that of contrast. If all of your colors fall within the same level of saturation and vibrancy, the eye has a harder time differentiating values.
You will also want to keep the complexity of your palette in mind. I recommend sticking to a maximum of four to five colors. If you’re just starting out, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a light and dark neutral as your base palette and then one pop of color for interest. This will help to keep things consistent and also empowers any contractors or freelancers in easily interpreting how to use your palette.