Cheating Color

Have you ever been strapped to use specific colors outlined in a branding guide? Felt restricted because those colors ended up being too light or dark for the way you want to use them?

Here’s the solution: throw out your brand guide.

gasp!

OK, don’t throw it out. Just put it in a drawer for a few minutes.

Branding Guides be Damned

When dealing with color on screen, it’s easy to get caught up in literal values from hex colors, you can cheat colors ever so slightly to achieve the right optical value. This is especially prevalent when trying to bring a company’s identity colors to a screen design. Because the most important idea behind a brand guide is to help a company maintain the visual integrity of their business, consider hex numbers to be guidelines rather than law. Once you are familiar enough with the colors your company uses, you can start to flex them a bit, and take a few liberties.

This is a quick method for cheating to get the color you really want. With a little sleight of design, we can swap a color that might be part of your identity guidelines, with one that works better optically, and no one will be the wiser!

Color is a Wily Beast

This might be hard: You might have to break out of the idea that a color can only be made using one method. Color is fluid. It interacts and changes based on its surroundings. Some colors can appear lighter or darker based on what color they appear on or next to. The RGB gamut is additive color, and as such, has a tendency to push contrast in the direction that objects may already be leaning—increasing the contrast of light colors on dark colors and decreasing the contrast of light on light. Obviously, because we are talking about monitors here, these aren’t hard and fast rules.

Cheat and Feel Good About It

On a light background, when you have a large element of a light color, a small element of the same color will appear lighter.

Enter our fake company: Double Dagger. They manufacture footnotes. Take a look at Fig. 1 below. The logo (Double Dagger), rule, and small text are all #6699CC. Because the logo so large, we get a good sense of the light blue color. Unfortunately, the rule and small text beneath it feel much lighter because we can’t create enough contrast with such small shapes in that color.

Now take a look at Fig. 2. Our logo is still #6699CC, but now the rule and smaller text have been cheated to #4477BB, effectively giving us the same optical color that we used in the logo. You will find that we get a better sense of the light blue, and the added benefit of more contrast for our text. Doesn’t that feel good?

Figures 1 and 2, showing light colors on a light background

Conversely, when you have a large element of a dark color, a small element of the same color will appear darker.

Let’s look at Fig. 3 below. Double Dagger has decided to change its identity colors from blue to red. In Fig. 3, our logo, rule, and small text are all #330000, a very dark red. If you look at the rule and small text below the logo, you will notice that they seem dark enough to be confused with black. The dark red can’t be sustained by the smaller shapes. Now let’s look at Fig. 4. The logo is still #33000, but we’ve now cheated the rule and smaller text to #550000. This gives us a better sense of a red, but preserves the dark and moody direction the company has taken.

Figures 3 and 4, showing dark colors on a light background

But we’ve only touched on color against a white background. For colors against a darker background, you may find lighter colors work fine, but darker colors need to be cheated a bit to the lighter side in order to reach a good optical equivalent. Take a look below at Fig. 5 and Fig. 6. Both use the same exact corresponding colors as Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 above, but now they are set against a dark background. Where the blue used in Fig. 1 above was too light for the smaller elements, we find it is just right for them in Fig. 5, and the darker blue we used in Fig. 2 has now proven too dark for a dark background, as evidenced in Fig. 6.

Figures 5 and 6, showing light colors on a dark background

Your mileage may vary, and this may not be applicable in all situations, but consider it to be just another tool on your utility belt for dealing with color problems.

About the author

Jason Santa Maria is a graphic designer from sunny Brooklyn, NY. He currently works as Creative Director for Happy Cog Studios, a web design consultancy, and A List Apart, an online magazine for people who make websites. He maintains a personal site where discussion of design, film, and sock monkeys can often be observed. His work has garnered him awards and pleasantries ranging from firm handshakes to forceful handshakes with a little hitting. Ever the design obsessif, Jason is known to take drunken arguments to fisticuffs over such frivolities as kerning and white space.

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