Color Theory 101 for Marketing Professionals: 21 Rules


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A new client of mine bought a 54-year-old company and told me that his first objective was to give the company a long overdue face-lift including a new logo. We sat down to talk about what he wanted, and though he was relatively open to ideas, I received strict orders to avoid the yellow and orange combination used in the company's current logo. While we were on the discussion of color, I brought out a Pantone swatch book to focus our efforts. My client was curious about how designers like myself went about choosing color.

While getting a design degree, I took several semesters of color theory. I learned to look at color in many different ways, how colors react to each other, the relative nature of color, the emotive quality of color, how a prism breaks light into a rainbow, and about additive and subtractive color theory. I told my client that most designers develop their own sense of color after a lot of practice. When my client left, I realized that the way I chose color was really not based on scientific theory or anything I learned in college. The truth is that I never learned anything as valuable as the rules dictated by the basic box of Crayola crayons.

First of all, there really are only eight colors. Pantone comes out with newer, bigger swatch books every few years, but the reality is that there are still the eight basic colors we learned about in first grade: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown and black. According to Roy G. Biv (the acronym for rainbow colors), indigo is supposedly part of the rainbow, but let's face it: indigo is blue. Pantone gives the illusion of more, thousands more, but if you cut any little swatch out of it's horizontal home in the narrow vertical Pantone fan-book and looked at it independently, you would recognize it as one of the basic 8 colors. It may be lighter or darker, but it's still one of the basic eight. While my second-grade teacher was teaching my classmates and me about Roy G. Biv, we were educating each other on color theory. Practicing our rainbows with a box of Crayolas taught us all we needed to know about color. Following is a list of things I think about before choosing color.

  1. Brown is the color of poop
  2. Never use brown and yellow together.
  3. No one likes orange.
  4. Together, dark blue and black look like a bruise.
  5. Green and red mean Christmas.
  6. Pink is girly unless it's for bubble gum.
  7. Black and yellow always look like a bumblebee.
  8. Pastels are babyish.
  9. Red means love and stop.
  10. Green means go and money and spring.
  11. Dark purple is for royalty.
  12. Dark green, dark blue and dark red are for golf-playing fathers on business trips.
  13. Everyone likes the ocean, jeans and the sky so everyone likes blue.
  14. Red and blue on white paper is patriotic.
  15. If you use a yellow crayon and you don't press hard enough you can't really see it.
  16. Paper is white so white crayons are pointless.
  17. Orange and black is for Halloween.
  18. Black is good for outlines, details, letters and licorice.
  19. If you use a red crayon and you don't press hard enough you get pink.
  20. Purple is good for boys or girls and anyone in between
  21. If you're only allowed to use one crayon, pick a dark one-you can get a lot of colors if you press hard in some spots and lightly in others.

There you have it. I personally love orange and I think that black and dark blue can be a very sophisticated combination, but if you're not comfortable choosing color, you can refer to the list for support. Pantone colors have replaced crayons in my life, but I find myself thinking back to this list often. For example, I know that if I use yellow in a project, I can't use subtle screens of yellow because they won't show up. Or if I'm creating a bold design with red and another color, I avoid using screens of red because light pink is anything but bold. It helps to understand that there is no white ink in standard printing in the same way, to a second-grader, there is no point to a white crayon.

I hope this list, culled from my years of professional experience, will help you steer clear of mistakes and make you feel a little more educated about color.

Audrey Nezer is an award-winning graphic designer in Seattle, Washington. Her company, Artifex Design, creates playful, edgy and effective marketing and communication materials for companies and organizations throughout the United States. Visit to learn more (and win a prize!)


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