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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Color

Lesson 3 of 5

Palettes & Systems


Graphic Design Fundamentals: Color

Lesson 3 of 5

Palettes & Systems


Lesson Info

Palettes & Systems

So then we can talk about bringing colors together using those kinds of relationships to define palettes for projects. And a palette is a selection of colors that have some relationship to each other to be applied to the various elements in a design, whether it's image material or typography. And we can also talk a little bit about how a palette can be used as a kind of a system for materials. So these all show a very specific kind of a palette. And really, what you want to try to do is to try to focus your palette into one sort of hue area in general, or one really strong sort of relationship of hue initially. The more hues that are present, the more confusing the color experience is. The fewer hues there are, and the closer their other relationships are, of value, of intensity, of temperature, the clearer and more compelling the color experience will be. The more memorable it will be. When you see a lot of different hues simultaneously in the world, in a design, it's very hard to rec...

all the color relationships that exist in that space. When we see a focused number of hues together, it becomes much easier. So here's a palette for a book that uses a hue drawn from the photography, which employs an analogous system that is elements that are in the blue to violet range. This is a poster that uses the complements red and green, and you can see that the density of red changes, which produces different intensities of red, and changes in the complementary experience. On the right, you have two ads from a system in which, in one ad, you have a complementary relationship that is more or less blue to yellow, not a true complementary relationship, which would be blue to orange, but close. Here, you have essentially an analogous set of relationships, or analogous hues. So you can also apply this thinking to how you're looking at color in photographic images. You can adjust the color of components or areas within a photographic image in order to accentuate or clarify a color relationship. That is, you don't have to use a photograph's color the way it comes to you, unless the photographer's telling you, "No, I don't want you to change the color," which they will often do, especially if it's artwork. So in going about choosing a palette, you can start pretty much anywhere, and I typically do this and also advocate on behalf of this strategy, and that is to start with a complementary pair because a complement gives you the greatest contrast possible in color. It gives you more flexibility for how you might use those colors because you can always mess with those two hues, temperature by shifting them slightly, or their saturation by dulling one out and using one more intensely. And you can also always add additional colors that might play off of those and still bring a little bit more richness or a little bit more interest in case that complementary relationship is feeling a little too monotonous. So this is just a kind of a process in which, starting out with the pure complements of a kind of a yellow-orange and a blue-violet. And then thinking, well that's just sort of basic. Adjusting the saturation and also the temperature of each. Adjusting the temperature so that the yellow becomes a little bit more red, a little bit warmer, but so that the blue-violet is actually kind of decreased in saturation. And then again, desaturating the blue-violet even more so that it's only a whisper of its former intensity. But still, in combination or in juxtaposition with that orange, the blue-violet... or the yellow-orange, the blue-violet is still present. So it's a much more complex, a much more kind of layered, or subtle relationship that calls to mind the ultimate power of the complement because the brain is still reading the complements there. But then the brain gets to kind of think about that a little bit. In this case, a paired, then for added interest, with that desaturated complement pair, two neutrals of sort of corresponding lightness and darkness, darker and lighter, and I'm not really sure why they're flipped, but that's okay. And with a slight temperature change, that is that this neutral is a little bit warmer, and this neutral is a little bit cooler, having a little bit of a green cast to it. And then, last, as a kind of a set in order to kind of liven things up, is to introduce yet another kind of very neutral, or desaturated element, but that actually exists more or less between these two pairs, which is kind of a red or a red-violet, also desaturated. That is really just a study. It's not related to the projects down here. But this is a website in which all the elements are essentially ... it's an analogous relationship. The elements are either yellow or green. It's just that the yellow is either intense or lighter in value, or desaturated or darker in value, which makes "brown." And the green is relatively intense. And then there're some other ... you know, the photography is full color, but in terms of the overall color, the color experience for that site layout, it's essentially a yellow-green analogous combination. So, you know, keeping the colors analogous causes or creates a tremendous amount of rich dialogue between them, but simply by varying the relative intensity or value of those two hues, those analogous hues, you get a tremendous amount of variation in it. So the limitation is actually kind of deceptive, so you think, "Oh, it's yellow and green. Well, what am I gonna do with that? I can't do anything with that." Well, of course you can. You can do this with it. And over here is another palette for some trading, or sell sheets ... sell sheet and software users manual for a former client in which there is ... First off, there's a basic analogous relationship between a violet-blue and a green ... blue-violet ... a violet-blue and a green-blue, that is cooler and warmer, and that is accented by a secondary color, which is either a yellow or an orange, so a warm color. Colors can be used in systems to create kind of variations among, say, products in a line or from section to section in a book. So you might define a very very specific kind of selection of hues and then just sort of alter the relationships to each other. Like how much of each one appears in each chapter. So you can think about color palettes as a way to develop a system to differentiate parts of information or products in a line, but that will still yield an overall relationship between them. And this is a set of systems in which only one variable's changing while the others remain the same. So for example, in this system, the hues are changing as well as the extension, but saturation ... value saturation and the temperature of those colors is remaining analogous. So the only thing that changes is hue. Here, on the other hand, value is what changes, but hue, saturation, and temperature remain analogous. And so on. You can kind of kick it up a notch if you start to mess with multiple variables, that is changing the hue and the saturation, or changing the hue, the saturation, and the temperature. And then you get greater complexity, and these are just a set of those that can be very interesting. So you can kind of think about palettes in a very very systematic way. It's just choose some almost at random and then just simply by varying some aspect, or a couple of aspects of them, is to increase complexity and also in the variation and also at the same time maintain a kind of a unified experience, totality among those colors as you're using them for different purposes. Limiting the palette is something that is important, not only for creating a specific color impression and being specific about things in order to differentiate, in order to imprint on the audiences' mind, is very important so that the color experience can also add to other kinds of graphical gestures or other strategies you're using in order to make that communication not confusable with any other communication, or that client confusable with any other client. So whether it's photographic material, images, or graphical things, typography, is that you can very often run a printing job using only one color. When you print a job using only one color of ink, that ink color does not have to be black. It doesn't cost any more to print the same monochromatic layout in a color that is not black. It's the same press, it's one plate, it's the same amount of ink, it's the same amount of paper. But sometimes, taking something that is basically black and white or a range of grays, grayscale, and printing it in a color that is not black, creates a whole new kind of experience. Now you can also use a very very limited palette, a selection of only two inks at a time, in order to create a vast array of intermediary hues because printing inks are transparent, and when you print them on top of each other, they create new colors by mixing together, much like mixing paint. So this is an example of an orange and a blue. They happen to be complements, but you can see printing on top of each other at different levels of tonality or opacity, and all of these individual colors are made up of what appear to be different colors, are made up of the same two ink colors. So from a cost standpoint, you can achieve a tremendously colorful experience in a very economical way by printing a project using only two colors, two ink colors. It means a smaller press, it means only two plates, it means less setup time, and less ink. But you can still acquire a vast palette out of only those two, and as a result, the color experience becomes that much more specific and memorable and recognizable. This is a media kit folder that was printed in two colors: an intense yellow and a cool gray. And you see that as those colors mix with each other in different densities, is that they create the appearance of different kinds of neutrals in between. Yup. I have a question. How do they achieve the lightness of orange, for example, and the intensive orange? Is this because of the layering? Like, let's say, ten times layered the same amount of ... Uh huh, so an ink color is the darkest that it will ever be when it is solid. And then what's happening is that the ink is being broken up as a pattern of dots, what is called tinting, or you're changing the opacity of it. So as the color becomes more transparent or less dense, it appears to change in value. These would be the same ink color if you were printing this sort of swatch transition on a piece of paper. And they will be layered, like, in one run. Yes, they would appear on the same plate. They would accept ink. It's just that different parts of the plate would be accepting more ink or less ink. Okay, thank you. And so you can play with photography by altering the color relationships, either using one ink color or mixing two ink colors to reproduce the same ... on top of each other, producing the same tonal value but allowing them to mix. Software allows you to adjust how much of each ink color is actually present in different tonal areas of a photographic image. For example, in this case, it's a blue and a green. The blue is more present, or is giving greater density in the shadow areas. Here, both are at about equal density in the shadow areas, but the blue has been removed from the upper level tonal areas, or the highlight areas. That's two colors of ink, and then a third, which is called a duotone and a tri-tone, respectively. And again, you can adjust the relationships between the tonal areas and how each color ink is applied to those. So you get a lot of very very interesting sort of mood effects using only a couple of inks, even for photographic images. You can also play a similar game when you're printing with four color process, or CMYK inks, in which the images made up of screens of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink, that mix together optically to create the illusion of an infinite continuous tone range of color, as happens in magazines and on billboards and so on. That, in that case, becomes known as a quad-tone, and you can affect the density of the four process colors in different ways to achieve different kinds of color effects. And another way of kind of limiting a palette, especially if you're using photography, is to really sort of art-direct the components of that image and the lighting so that the color range, the range of hues and the range of other kinds of relationships that are present become very very narrowly focused. So you get a very very strong, specific color impression.

Class Description

Color is a critical element of good design. Learn how to make expert-level color choices in Graphic Design: Color with Timothy Samara.

In this class, you’ll learn about the fundamental principles for working with color and how those insights can help you create cohesive color palettes. You’ll learn about:

  • Hue, temperature, saturation, and value
  • Analogous and complementary relationships
  • Developing palettes and systems
  • Color psychology and symbolism

Timothy will share tips for working with color that will improve the overall quality of all of your design work and help you get great results every time.

In Graphic Design: Color with Timothy Samara you’ll learn a fool-proof system for selecting color that you’ll return to again and again. 


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This class is totally on trend. I can see it being VERY popular. CreativeLive obviously loves him & his (awesome) topics, as his classes are often available for limited time (for free). Speaker is well versed/uber knowledgeable on the subject/techniques; obviously very passionate & a creative/visionary. I would suggest for him on future verbal teachings, to work on the elimination of the verbal tick of saying "uhh" so very often. Otherwise, A++++. Thank you.

Gary Harding

I've studied color in various ways (for both graphics and painting) for 15 years and I can recognize this is really good information. That said, it's only a high-level overview; it's not meant to teach you everything you know, but rather cover the highlights only of color theory. It's still a good class. Timothy is a great lecturer, but this is not a hands-on deep dive, which would take hours, if not days.

Øyvind Hermans

Precise, clear and interesting course. The course gave me the insight I was looking for, I love it.