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Choosing the right color to communicate your message

Graphics | November 1, 2007 | By:

Use color to communicate your message.

Pick a color, any color. Now, think about that color and what it means to you. Is it powerful? Energizing? Soothing? Refreshing? Welcoming? Dependable? Color is universally understood and is a critical design element for graphics, especially those used in outdoor applications such as awnings, banners, and building wraps. In a matter of seconds color can command attention, evoke an emotional response, convey a message, define a space, create an idea, and make a lasting impression. No matter what your message is, there is a color that can help communicate it. So, what do you need to know to make the right color decision?

It’s all about appearances

Color is actually the reflection of white light on a object. A red object absorbs all the light rays except red, which is reflected back to our eyes. Black objects absorb all the light rays; white objects reflect all of them. As light changes, color changes. Additionally, the viewer’s vision, the setting of an object (inside or outdoors), and surrounding colors in the artwork can influence the color we see. This can be especially important as you consider colors for your outdoor graphics.

A color wheel is a visual representation of the color spectrum. It includes three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), three secondary colors (green, orange, and violet) and six tertiary colors (red-violet, yellow-orange, blue-green, blue-violet, yellow-green, and red-orange). The color arrangement illustrates the visual “temperature” of colors, from warm (red) to cool (blue). The arrangement also shows the “active” color range (reds) to the “passive” color range (blues). Active colors appear to advance when next to passive colors, and passive colors appear to recede when next to an active color. The human eye actually sees warm colors before it sees cool colors.

Generally, active colors have more visual weight than passive colors. Warm, saturated, light colors are active and visually advance. Cool, low saturated, dark colors are passive and visually recede. There are some colors that remain visually neutral.

Seeing and feeling color

Visually effective outdoor graphics use contrasting colors to draw the viewer’s eye. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, research indicates that high color contrast can improve recall by 38 percent. Three factors contribute to color contrast: hue (the color), value (the lightness or darkness of a color), and saturation (the intensity of a color). High contrast (complementary) colors are a good choice when you want to make a strong visual statement. These colors balance each other out and command attention when used together.

Low contrast (analagous) colors blend together and make your message hard to see and understand. By changing the hue, value, or saturation of your colors you can achieve the desired effect.

Too much of good thing

There’s always room for experimentation when it comes to color. Often unusual color combinations draw our attention because they are unexpected. There are four principles to consider when choosing color.

  1. Color balance. Use strong, bold colors to bring attention to a specific feature of your design. Too many colors will overwhelm the design and draw attention away from your message.
  2. Color contrast. Use a combination of light and dark colors to add contrast and emphasize a point. Too many contrasting colors can be confusing and make it hard for the viewer to focus on the message.
  3. Background color. Use a neutral or quiet background to help draw attention to the more brightly colored points of interest. Too much background color will distract the view from the important features.
  4. Color unity. Use colors throughout the design to help unify the image.

Whether its the number of words (10 or less is recommended) or the number of colors used in a design, simplicity is the key to effective outdoor communication. The right message, the right audience, and the right use of color sets the mood and makes a lasting impression.

Marti Naughton is the art director at the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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