How to Choose a Flexible & Engaging Color Palette

Illustration of a paint tube doing yoga

Color seems so simple. It's easy to pick which colors you like - you probably even have a favorite color.

But when you start combining colors together, and try to create something harmonious and set the right tone, things can get really frustrating really quickly.

I'm not ashamed to say that designing flexible and engaging color palettes doesn't come naturally to me, even though that's part of my Noteworthy Visual Brand Starter Kit

But because it's been an area of challenge for me, I've done a lot of reading on the subject, and have put in many hours of practice.

So if you're struggling to put together a color palette that you love, and that you're easily able to implement in your business, I've put together two main strategies you can use to make your task a little easier.

Color Wheel

1. Start with a Base Scheme

Thanks to the work of color theorists, one easy way to start building your color scheme is to choose one of the basic categories of color schemes that are known to work well. There's quite a few of them, but I'm going to share the five most common.

Color palette with different shades of pink

Monochromatic

A monochromatic color palette uses shades and tints of the same color. This is the easiest color scheme to implement, and is popular with large corporate brands.

Color palette with shades of purple, pink, and orange

Analogous

Analogous color schemes use colors next to each other on the color wheel, usually three hues, like yellow, orange and red. These colors schemes are also pretty easy to implement, and have more range than monochromatic. You do, however, need to be careful and be sure your colors are easily distinguishable from each other and don't blend together in the mind of your audience.

color palette with pink, forest green, and shades of gray

Complementary

Complementary color schemes are based around two colors on opposite sides of the color wheel, such as red and green or orange and blue. This type of color palette has a lot of energy and contrast.

color palette with pink, navy, and shades of gray

Split Complementary

Split complementary palettes are similar to complementary palettes, but instead of the two colors being opposites on the color wheel, they are almost opposites, such as red and blue or orange and purple. They have a lot of the energy that complementary palettes do, but tend to work together more easily than the strict opposites of a complementary palette.

color palette with pink, blue, yellow, light gray, and dark brown

Triadic

A triadic color scheme includes three base colors equidistant from each other on the color wheel. The classic example of this is red, blue, and yellow, but orange, green, and purple is another example, as is pink, turquoise, and amber. This is a great option if you know you need to use multiple colors of equal importance within your visual brand.

illustration of a color swatch

2. Start with a Base Color

When designing a color palette, I'm usually not starting from scratch. Based on the brand personality my client and I have decided on, which will be the foundation of the visual brand (and therefore the color palette), I usually have a color or two I know I want included in the final palette.

Starting with one core color and building the rest of your palette around that color won't be too hard if you keep these simple tips in mind.

illustration of a color swatch with a speech bubble

Focus on Message

On the note of that base color, I highly suggest you think critically about what that color should be. If your color palette is for a personal project, by all means, pick your favorite color. But if you're trying to build a color palette for your business, consider the meaning behind the color you choose as your foundation.

Suggested reading: Color Theory in Branding

After choosing your base color, consider how other colors can add dimension to your palette's message. For instance, if the main feeling you want your palette to have is calm, blue is a great base color. If you want your palette to feel calm but also cheerful, it would be a good idea to add a splash of yellow.

illustration of three course headers in different colors

Look at Your Needs

Simpler color palettes are easier to put together, but if your business has different categories or courses, you may want to have a distinct color for each one. How many dominant colors should be in your palette is often determined by the structure of your business.

Also think about all the places you'll need to use your colors. What color will your website text be? Will it be traditional black, a softer gray, or maybe a warm brown? Do you want an accent color for buttons or call outs? 

Thinking practically about your needs in this way will help you build a color palette that works in any environment.

six checkmarks in the colors of the rainbow

General Tips

Strategies 1 or 2 are great for beginning your color palette, but to make sure it's a flexible and engaging palette, run through these general tips as well - they apply to both strategies.

color pairs of pink and green and pink and black

Add Contrast

There are two kinds of contrast you're looking for in your color palette.

The first is contrast of hue. You can ignore this one if you're building a monochromatic palette, but basically this means your colors need to be distinguishable from each other. For example, don't use an orange and slightly more yellow-orange and expect your audience to keep them straight.

The second kind of contrast applies to all color palettes, and that is value contrast. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of a color. If you look at your color palette in gray scale, you should have a variety of grays. It's fine to have a couple of your colors be a similar value, but not all of them.

illustration of different sizes of frames

Look for Inspiration

Staring at a blank page (or blank color palette) is no fun. Being stuck with a color palette that just doesn't feel quite right is also no fun. One strategy that often solves both of those problems is to look for inspiration. I like looking at how other artists have used color rather than looking at just color palettes. Painters, interior designers, and photographers are great sources of inspiration.

(If you're ready to get inspired, just scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

illustration of gears

Experiment

It seems simple, but simply trying a bunch of different combinations is often how I end up with my final color palette. All of the tips I've shared with you today can usually get you 90% of the way to a beautiful color palette. But there's nothing like trial and error to get you over the finish line.

So be patient with yourself, and the process.

Happy swatching!


illustration of a color swatch in a fancy frame


Further Reading

10 More Color Palettes Based on Famous Paintings

Studying famous artists' color palettes is a simple way to start learning about color dynamics without needing any background in fine arts.