Master brand colors with 5 time-saving online tools.

PMS 485. Maybe it’s the color of your organization’s logo, but no other colors have been developed into a brand palette. How do you know what other colors will go well with it? Or what if you know a business partner’s campaign theme you want to follow uses a lot of #009bf0 blue and you need to find the right PMS color to match to it? To master brand colors, you need to use the right tools, the right way.

If you have access to printer’s swatchbooks or software like PhotoShop or Illustrator, you could experiment and find what works, and guess at what the equivalents are in other media. Another expensive option is to go out and buy a printed color guide. Your budget might be big enough to consult with a visual designer who can provide recommendations.

How do they come up with those innovative combinations? Talent and taste have a great deal to do with it, but time also comes into play. What do you do when color development rests on your shoulders?

Master brand colors with sound color theory and design that works.

I spent a semester of design school in Color Theory class, working for hours with color gouache and 1” x 3” hand-cut pieces of art paper. In the class, we were taught the art and science of subtractive color. We had to build up colors from scratch, hand mixing up to 20 shades of any given color, using only three primary colors plus black and white; five tubes in all, until we were even allowed to start working on color palette development.

Those exercises, along with a fair dose of theory on the psychology of color, provided the budding designers and illustrators in the class with a foundation to help us understand why certain color harmonies work and others don’t, the impact of culture on color interpretation, and prepared us to make decisions about colors in the future. It was a tough class, and one of many that most designers need to pass in order to have the right to talk about color with authority.

Online changes the rules. Change with them.

Marketers today need to put a greater emphasis on use of color in online media. Ink on paper may not be relevant to their work. In fact, some online brands, like Google, eBay and Facebook, have a very minor need for print color standards. And while they do use some colors in offline (physical world-based) marketing, what’s most important to them is what colors are being used on mobile devices and computers to attract customers and users.

If the bulk of your marketing is done for the web, than it’s more important to be choosing color based on those needs.

What’s the difference? Why does the way color is displayed matter?

Subtractive color used for printing, begins with white and end with black; as you add color, the result gets darker and tends toward full black. Additive color, coming through screens on computers and mobile devices, begins with black and ends with white; as more color is added, the result is lighter and tends to full, bright white. If you want to know more about how additive and subtractive color works, read this NYU web page that defines them, and provides more ‘under the hood’ details about color theory.

It’s outdated and unwise to start with a paper-based color swatch book for most designers, and here’s why:

  • Colors need to be viewed in the context of their final use. If you are designing for the Web, print swatches don’t provide the range you’ll see on-screen
  • Paper and ink colors shift and fade over time. Do you have an old Pantone ink paddle sitting around? Toss it and get a new one if you design for print
  • Books of color families printed in 4/color process do not match the chroma of spot colors or additive color.

Unless you are designing specifically for print, avoid using only printed guides. You want to be able to reference color on-screen as well on a printed page. If you do design for print, use tools that are current, AND provide swatches for comparison and example to the vendors that will produce final products.

Some of my favorite Pro tools that help the process

If you haven’t already concluded, choosing color is not simple. But you don’t have to use expensive printed references to develop and check color, especially for the Web. There are several FREE online tools to help you. I encourage you to use them, work with your design resource or printer to verify colors with print swatches, and avoid buying tools that are expensive and don’t get used.

Adobe Color (Formerly Adobe Kuler): https://color.adobe.com/create/color-wheel/

Adobe Color, formerly known as Adobe Kuler, is an internet application from Adobe Systems that lets you try out, create and save various color schemes, each of which consists of a set of five colors. Great for exploring color sets. It provides results in RGB and Hexidecimal (Web numeric) color IDs.

Paletton.com: http://paletton.com/#uid=3480E0kuWtVjiAJotvBw4nACEit

Paletton.com is a designer color tool designed for creating color combinations that work together well. It uses classical color theory with ancient artistic RYB color wheel to design color palettes of one to four hues, each of five different shades. If you are a traditionalist used to paper color wheels, this is the tool for you. The cool thing about Paletton is the ability to choose monochromatic, adjacent, Triad, Tetrad, or Freestyle color sets. Results are provided in RGB and Hexidecimal (Web numeric) color IDs.

Colourlovers: http://www.colourlovers.com/

The colourlovers website is a community of creatives that custom-make colors, patterns and palettes. The website provides drop-down menus to choose between millions of user-created color combinations. It works well as a way to jumpstart your thoughts about color palettes and patterns. Results are provided in RGB and Hexidecimal color IDs.

Sphere: http://mudcu.be/sphere/#

This online tool is a color theory visualizer that lets you vary and experiment with color combinations against both light and dark backgrounds. I like how it provides color experimentation with consideration of the background environment. Results are provided in Hexidecimal color IDs.

RGBto: http://rgb.to/

Once you’ve decided on a color scheme, it’s important to be able to translate from one color system to another without relying on guesswork. With this online tool, you can convert Pantone colors to RAL, CMYK, RGB, Hex, HSL, HSB, or JSON. Using the tool is simple. Enter the color value you are starting with, and click the button. You’ll be provided with the closest color equivalents based on known industry standards. You can color search using keywords. I’ve never used this method personally, but when you have a client who is insisting on having you match pea soup green or air force blue, this is one tool that can help! I could have used this with one client 15 years ago. But that’s another story.

Bonus: Ultimate — CSS Gradient Generator: http://www.colorzilla.com/gradient-editor/

Have you wanted to play with gradients? This is a tool many web designers use to shorten the time it takes to create color gradients for buttons, banners, backgrounds and more.

Make color selection fun.

Fun, not drudge. Most of us can recall the joy we had as kids when we were handed a big box of crayons. And now we can have fun playing and get paid for it to boot — Win!

But color is not something most marketing professionals work on regularly. And to be very frank, most designers don’t either, which is why tools like these were created and are so popular. Use one or more of them, and enjoy the ability to explore more possibilities. Things will go faster and smoother next time you want to master brand colors and provide consistency in their use across various media.

Tools to make the creative process smoother are hardly cheats. They are an important part of a professional’s tool bag. What kind of tools are part of your ‘go to’ list to help you in your work?

What are some challenges and setbacks you’ve had setting colors in your marketing materials? Let me know in the comments below.



I’m a creative problem-solver helping clients who use Direct Marketing but need more effective lead generation and deeper customer relationships. You can learn more about me on LinkedIn.

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