How to use color meaningfully

Color might be the least understood design element. So many producers of materials that are meant to inform use color just to decorate. That might be enough to get attention for the materials. We notice color; most sighted people, even color-blind ones, can see at least some color. And we tend to like it. So color decoration might cause us to look at something, but it won't fulfill its potential to send its message. What a waste.

Instead, if you can use color for a project, harness its attracting power. Make a color plan to help you nonverbally deliver information about the projects’ elements. Because we humans notice patterns, and especially differences within patterns, use color consistently. And break that color pattern only to signal a change in meaning. Color can:

  • show differences
  • show similarities
  • help readers find things
  • encourage readers to move through information
  • help readers recall information
  • emphasize something
  • play something down
  • convey meanings—inherent, assigned, or both

Color can show differences

A different color for each bar in a graph (or each heading on a Web page or manual) clearly shows that the bars (or headings) represent different categories. And a different color and headline for each brochure in a series clearly shows that the brochures are about different topics. At least those examples are clear as long as the colors look obviously different. Subtleties have little or no place in color choice in information ...

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