Color Harmony: Logos

Color plays a crucial role in the message and mood a logo communicates. Three considerations for employing color in logos will help you master the harmony.

by Christopher Simmons
Oct/Nov 2006
In the designer’s craft, logos represent a special achievement. They are the most succinct and compact vehicles we use to communicate complex messages. They must embody specific qualities that connect with and linger in the minds of the intended audiences. They must be thoughtfully conceived, expertly crafted, employ appropriate and supportive typography, and be imbued with a color sense that resonates with viewers.Color, of course, is highly subjective. What is individually pleasing to one person may elicit only a neutral response in another person. How many times, for example, have you been asked to use the CEO’s favorite color in the company’s logo? How many times have you observed designers (other designers, naturally—never you or I!) propose logo colors based on the latest trend or on their own personal preferences?

While there is no way to anticipate (and also little reason to accommodate) arbitrary tastes, there are certain colors and combinations that have come to represent particular attributes. Knowing and understanding these particular attributes can help you be more effective when selecting meaningful colors for your logo projects, as will the following practical considerations:

1. Weigh the one-color implications.
First is the general (but recently declining) requirement that a logo should work in one color. Typically, one color means black; this is based on economy more than any color theory. While it is important to consider what happens to a logo when it is photocopied, faxed, or applied in one-color situations (such as in a newspaper or silk screened on a T-shirt), the one-color rule is slowly becoming less applicable. We are increasingly relying on paperless document distribution, and color desktop printing is practically ubiquitous. If your multicolored logo needs to work in a single color, be sure to select colors that are sufficiently different in value to allow for one-color reproduction.

2. Anticipate the applications.
Another consideration is utility. How easy will it be to implement the color scheme you’ve selected for your logo? A three-color logo, for example, requires a significant commitment when you’re producing printed materials. Complex three-color designs generally incur the most cost when printing and may limit flexibility when selecting accent colors for designs. To mitigate this, you can use colors from the logo itself as major colors in the applied design (this is also true of one- and twocolor designs). When selecting colors for a logo, it’s important to anticipate its final application.

3. Think about the story your colors tell.
In addition to these practical considerations, color should be considered as an effective tool for storytelling. Color communicates a wealth of emotions, moods, and circumstances. It’s no accident that red and yellow are almost ubiquitously used for branding fast food franchises, or that blue is so frequently associated with health care. Careful thought has been given to the effect these colors have on the human imagination. When you understand the moods that color can promote, a logo can serve as an effective ambassador for the nature and psychology of the entity it represents.

Sometimes color choices are obvious—such as when you’re designing a logo for a company with a color in its name, or when the subject of the logo is naturally synonymous with a color (e.g., blue for water). In other instances, color selection presents more of a challenge.

To help you gain confidence in selecting color for logos, we’ve excerpted a series of examples from our recent book, Color Harmony: Logos. In each case (see below sidebar), we’ve created a logo based on a descriptive term, then applied a variety of color palettes to demonstrate how altering the color choices changes what the overall composition communicates.

When the colors change, the message changes, too. We’re showing just a few examples here—there are more than 1,000 in the book itself, as well as a discussion of the color wheel and the various geometric themes within it, case studies, and more than 100 real-world examples of logos that make effective use of color.

Armed with an understanding of the theoretical relationships among colors, and an appreciation for the power of color to elicit specific moods, you’ll have the tools you need to create memorable, appropriate logos that make effective use of color.

Will Your Logo Work in One Color?
Try this technique to test the contrast levels in your logo design.

When you have concerns about whether your logo design will work in a single color, convert your art to grayscale. If the colors you’ve chosen are too close in value, they will lose their definition, regardless of hue. Balance of contrast creates dimension; this will be reflected in the appearance of the grayscale conversion.

Recommended resources
The Elements of Color, by Johannes Itten, $45, John Wiley & Sons

The Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers, $15, Yale University Press

The Color Compendium, by Augustine Hope and Margaret Walch, $64.95, Van Nostrand Reinhold,

And take a walk through the Impressionist wing of any good art museum.

This article and accompanying visuals are adapted from the book Color Harmony: Logos, by Christopher Simmons and MINE™, $25, Rockport Publishers. The book is accompanied by an interactive CD with logo art that allows readers to experiment with color combinations and print the results for reference.

About the author
Christopher Simmons is a designer, writer, educator, design advocate, and founding creative director of MINE, a multidisciplinary design office in San Francisco. He teaches at California College of the Arts (CCA) and the Academy of Art University, lectures on design issues, and frequently participates as a judge for major competitions. Color Harmony: Logos is his third book. To learn more about MINE, visit



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