The Benday Dot girl will show you how to create a good color palette for print!
The Benday Dot girl will show you how to create a good color palette for print!

Previously, we’ve talked about building a color palette from a general perspective, but today I want to talk about creating a color palette for use in printed materials.

Of course, you should always make sure your color choices match up with your overall purpose, but once you have that established it’s time to consider how to apply that in the case of print.

You might be wondering what’s different about print. Color is color, right? Sometimes. You have to consider things like reversing out or knocking out type over colored areas, especially if the color is particularly “rich.” If the registration (how the color plates line up) is off, it will look blurry and be hard to read. If you must use reversed out type, avoid going any smaller than, say, 16 points or using typefaces with extreme thick-thin contrast such as Didot or Bodoni. And avoid the rich black. Just use 100% K instead.

Reversed type on rich black can look blurry and hard to read if the registration isn't spot-on, especially with a finely drawn typeface like Linotype Didot. Opt for a less brittle font and 100% K instead of a mixed black.
Reversed type on rich black can look blurry and hard to read if the registration isn’t spot-on, especially with a finely drawn typeface like Linotype Didot. Opt for a less brittle font and 100% K instead of a mixed black.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about building actual palettes.

A good place to start is with a dominant color, which might come from the logo or whatever color is associated with the brand.

For example, IBM is known as “Big Blue.” It would stand to reason that shades of the official blue from the logo might be a good place to start.

Target is famously red, as is Coca-Cola. (Pantone 186 is one of the most widely specified spot colors since it is similar to Coca-Cola red, which is actually just as proprietary and secret as the soda giant’s formula.) Likewise many of their marketing materials have liberal amounts of red, or use red as a strong accent.

Another trick is to use color as code for different types of information. When I designed the AHFD brochure, I used beige backgrounds on the pages featuring hospital construction highlights, and set the management profiles against pale green. Throughout the brochure, the headlines are all in dark red-orange.

Based on the corporate colors, this brochure skews the color palette a bit.

Typically what I do is I choose a dominant color, use one of the basic color schemes outlined here to arrive at 2-3 main colors, and add in lighter/muted versions of the same, plus some neutrals to balance things out.

Color blocks of the AHFD palette

So for the color palette of the AHFD brochure, I started with blue, with a slightly teal hint to it. The complement to blue is orange, and if you desaturate orange you get tan. Make it darker and you get brown. Dark red-orange and green complement each other and round out the palette. Note there isn’t any purple or yellow per se; rather, they are hinted at in the tan and red-orange, respectively.

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