Color Harmony Field Trip

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| March 18, 2008

Let’s talk about harmony. Not the hippy-dippy kind… the kind dictated by your color wheel. Unfortunately, with crazy deadlines looming and pushy clients on the phone, designers often don’t have time to go back to basics. The fundamentals of color theory that you learn early in your design education might even be a distant memory. You probably have a decent eye for color, but you rarely think “triadic scheme” or “a split-complementary will be great here!”

When you start losing sight of the fundamentals, it’s time for a field trip. Like the corporate branding field trip I sent you on last year, getting out and looking at design in use can give you a better sense of what works in the commercial world.

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My favorite diner users a complementary color scheme in its neon logo, red and green

For this trip, print out a color wheel or some basic color harmonies (I like this simple page at Tiger Color: ), and grab your camera and a notebook. Head to your nearest downtown area packed with shops and restaurants, or to the local shopping mall.

Pick at least three stores or restaurants to focus on, and inspect their logos, all of the signage you can find, promotional pieces, menus, brochures, and so on. Take pictures if you can, and ask yourself the following questions about each business:

1) What is the main color harmony used by the company? Why? For example, if your trip includes a Burger King, you’d note its triad harmony, specifically a primary triad of red, yellow, and blue. Triads are balanced and usually quite bold, and at two colors in the primary triad (red and yellow) are considered appetizing when in a food environment. What do the harmonies you see say about the business?

2) What color harmonies do you see in the company’s supplementary designs? It’s nearly spring, so you’re likely to see some brightly colored promotions and signage. Look here for cool analogous color schemes (like yellow, yellow-green, and green) as well as split complementaries like yellow-green, blue-green, and red (modified in value to a pastel pink). These schemes allow for both bright and soothing combinations depending on the values and saturations chosen, and are often used in summer promotions as well. Hit the same stores in fall, and you might see the same harmonies with different hues or values, or more complex rectangular and square harmonies.

3) How do photos in the supplementary designs relate to the harmonies? Since most photos are full color, it’s easy to just accept them as part of the harmony you already indicated—like a pair of blue jeans, a photo goes with any color scheme, right? Not quite. Look closely at the full color photos paired with the harmonies you inspected above. Do they have any dominant colors that are part of the overall harmony? Or perhaps do they even add a new color to the scheme, forming a different harmony than you originally found?

4) Where do neutrals fit in? Just as the eye needs some negative space in a composition, the eye needs some neutral colors to give it a rest. White, black, gray, brown, even very desaturated versions of the colors from the harmony offer a breather from a barrage of color. What neutrals are used, and to what extent, in the designs you see? How does that relate to the type of business? For example, Toys R Us will likely avoid much use of neutrals aside from some white in order to keep the eye busy and entertained, while Brookstone will use lots of neutrals to provide a soothing and sleek feel.

These questions should get you started, but you may have many more based on the stores you see. For example, some may not use a standard harmony at all—is that good or bad for that store?

The field trip should also get you thinking about ways you can implement color harmonies in your own work, helping you form a more solid basis for why colors you choose actually work together, or help you steer away from using colors that you love even when they don’t really do the job.

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