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  • Julia Woollams

The colour wheel


Cutting my teeth as a designer in the noughties working in a print-first design studio I very much ‘think’ in CMYK in terms of colour. Of course, for many years now my clients communicate firstly through digital, and some don’t even require print colour values, with our pantone swatch book gathering dust in the stationery cupboard.

Brands’ colour palettes seem to go through trends, whether it’s expanding or reducing colour sets, standing out or conforming to the sector or being swayed by the new season’s shades.

One constant I’ve always found is that subjectivity plays a part in a brand palette, with key stakeholders influencing the process with their own preferences rather than what might be best for their audience. When I was a junior designer, we worked with a cultural organisation for several years where their boss rejected any design containing orange simply because he didn’t like the colour, which was a shame really as it rather complemented their key colour, green.

I’m interested in finding out about other designers’ relationships with brand colour palettes, so I sought six different creative perspectives. Here’s my chat with Marc Aktinson, Gilles & Cecilie, Syd Hausmann, Mark Wood, Ken Li and Luke Gifford.

 

Marc Atkinson


Since graduating from Central Saint Martins, Marc has co-founded and run two design and brand studios: MARC&ANNA and, most recently, Land of Plenty. Here he’s worked with clients across arts, culture, leisure, charity, and education – from the British Heart Foundation to Arts Council England. He is currently Head of Design & Brand at the Southbank Centre.

Find out more about Marc on his website.


Julia: Have you noticed any recent colour trends with your clients?

Marc: The most obvious trend in recent years – as you’ve pointed out – has been towards bright RGB palettes that don’t translate to print, across both identities and campaigns. And if you’re a digital-only brand, and you can, why not.

However, this approach does cause issues with brands that exist in the physical world too, and I’ve encountered some uneasy disconnects between digital and print appearance with some clients. Consistency is still important, and should always be a consideration when building an identity or new brand campaign. Those Pantone books aren’t obsolete quite yet!


Julia: Have you encountered client subjectivity around colour choices?

Marc: I recently worked with a huge multi-national who's CEO demanded we remove one of their brand colours because he didn’t like it, thereby wrecking their colour system. It was completely subjective, and so impossible to argue with. In the end we had to throw the system out and re-configure how they used colour.

But, if the brand colour is grounded in a solid brand strategy with a strong idea at its core, there’s less room for opinion – it’s easier for everyone to rally around a decision with a rationale behind it. Selecting a colour based on taste and trends alone is subjective, and short-sighted because it likely won’t last the test of time.

Selecting a colour based on taste and trends alone is subjective, and short-sighted because it likely won’t last the test of time.

Julia: When would you recommend a broad colour palette, and when would you suggest a narrow one?

Marc: A narrow palette is great for building recognition – whether for a brand or a campaign – and is particularly helpful if budgets are tight and marketing opportunities limited. But a well considered complementary palette can add so much versatility, and help keep communications looking fresh and appealing to a wider audience.

It’s a fine balance though. One of our clients’ secondary palette was the entire spectrum. This wide a palette is not actually helpful to a designer, and we worked with them to create a limited palette that was more practical, and helped create consistency across their communications.

I'd generally recommend that a new brand starts narrow and builds out over time, and a small brand with limited touch points keeps it narrow. But there’s no single determinant – it will depend on the sector, audience, and range of communications, and brand objectives.

The palette for Le Biau was chosen to echo its surroundings. Colours were drawn from the limestone of the 16th Century farmhouse, and the acres of lush gardens it’s set in.

Julia: Finally, what’s your favourite colour?

Marc: I’m not sure I have a single favourite, it’s all about context – what colour I choose to wear and what colour I want on my walls are completely different! I love colour, but use it sparingly.

 

Gilles & Cecilie


Gilles & Cecilie is a multi-disciplinary creative team run by the couple Gilles Jourdan from France and Cecilie Maurud Barstad from Norway. They’re based in London, and make illustration, interiors, installation and wall painting. The two of them met during a fire alarm at Central Saint Martins while studying graphic design and established their studio in 2006. Cecilie has also recently published an artist book of a series of her illustrated short stories observing life in Highbury Stadium Square during the London Lock Down.

Find out more about Gilles & Cecilie on their website and follow them on Instagram.


Julia: Have you noticed any recent colour trends with your clients?

Gilles & Cecilie: We have noticed more that we get given or shown an exciting palette and then we have to use their palette and add ours for the rest.

In recent years we have received more requests where the client asks us to do a colour palette in the early part of a project. The palette is not only for us to use in the illustrations but for the designer and other makers involved in creating an outcome.


Julia: Have you encountered client subjectivity around colour choices?

Gilles & Cecilie: We hear this mostly from fellow designers. We don't have any memory of this happening in our work.

When we design murals, we create palettes that fit within the environment the mural is in.
Julia: When would you recommend a broad colour palette, and when would you suggest a narrow one?

Gilles & Cecilie: In our illustrations we use narrow ones. We aim for as simple palettes as possible and use tones in each colour: light, mid and dark. In our wall paintings we usually have around 12 to 15 colours in our palette. We make colour palettes to help convey a message and emotions.

When we design murals, we create palettes that fit within the environment the mural is in. Often inspired by colours in nature, always warm tones and cold tones together. Contrasts, complementary and a twist of eccentric or unexpected mix, as we love the way certain colours together make each other vibrate and look good.

Left: Red Cross HQ, Oslo, Norway. We explain how colours work together when we meet with our client. The red on the wall is not the brand colour, but we chose this to work with the light, the snow, the rest of the colours in the illustrations, we had to go beyond the colour code and mix a red that appears as Red Cross colour in combination with its environment. Right: Vinmonopolet. We made a palette first, based on the ingredients of the cover with grapes, hops and herbs. The palette is inspired by the light at the end of the day. It started with a mid-century colour palette and the client wanted to have a more modern result. In this case we had the challenge of creating a palette before illustrations were made as the colours were used throughout the annual report on text, graphs and graphics.
Julia: Finally, what’s your favourite colour?

Gilles & Cecilie: Gilles really likes to use a stimulating red colour, not red as emergency or danger, but more associated with passion and friendly fire. Not a ‘be careful’ red. A red with a bit of yellow and a fraction towards pink. I love warm tones together, strawberry red, pink, orange and yellow.

 

Syd Hausmann


Syd is a graphic designer who specialises in working with established and developing brands to deliver clear and memorable designs. Her attention to detail and impeccable execution ensures that her clients’ brands are safeguarded and remain consistent. Syd has 15 years of design experience helping a broad range of industries – including academia, publishing, finance, retail, media, events, charities and the arts – to successfully tell their stories through digital and print design.

Find out more about Syd on her website.


Julia: Have you noticed any recent colour trends with your clients?

Syd: While most of my clients have an existing colour palette, I have noticed an increased use of bright, bold colours. Electric blue seems to be everywhere. There’s also been an increase in my clients wanting to make sure their colours are more accessible – especially online.


Julia: Have you encountered client subjectivity around colour choices?

Syd: Yes, I remember a client who was in the financial services and was utterly wedded to blue. A brand audit revealed a considerable amount of competition using blue but this actually made his conviction stronger! I realised the only way he would understand how his brand could be something other than blue was to actually present him with mocked-up visuals. This really helped progress the conversation of colour and while he still does have blue in his brand, his core palette is made up of three colours so there are still two alternative colours to choose from.

There’s also been an increase in my clients wanting to make sure their colours are more accessible – especially online.

Julia: When would you recommend a broad colour palette, and when would you suggest a narrow one?

Syd: Recommendations of the amount of colours is dependent on several things including the brand itself, the size of the organisation, the budget and the type of people who will be using the brand. For example, if the organisation is quite small, the staff unfamiliar with brand usage and the receptionist also acts as the marketing person, I’d keep the palette quite small.


Julia: Finally, what’s your favourite colour?

Syd: Haha! This changes frequently though at the moment I am into a green and pink combination which is largely the result of a desire to decorate the living room.

 

Mark Wood


Senior Creative Director, Superunion. With a passion for creative problem solving, Mark has experience in creating and developing brands for some of the world’s most iconic companies as well as start-ups and nonprofits. His clients include Deloitte, Apple, Ericsson, WPP, Land Rover, The British Heart Foundation, a fintech pioneer Elliptic, and Legal & General. Mark is the recipient of a Cannes Lion Grand Prix in Design for his work with Notpla, a sustainable packaging brand, created on a mission to make plastic packaging disappear. Mark’s work has gained numerous awards and recognition including D&AD, The One Show, New York Festivals, Type Directors Club New York, Design Week, and Benchmark Awards.

Find out more about Superunion on their website and follow Mark on Twitter.


Julia: Have you noticed any recent colour trends with your clients?

Mark: No, not at all.


Julia: Have you encountered client subjectivity around colour choices

Mark: All of the time! It is natural for people who commission the work to want to like it and therefore their subjective opinion of colour will always crop up in presentations and discussions. It shouldn’t really matter if somebody likes a colour or not. It is more important to ask if it is the right colour. Does it differentiate from competitors? Does it represent the story that lies behind the design or the brand? Those questions help remove any subjective opinion.

It shouldn’t really matter if somebody likes a colour or not. It is more important to ask if it is the right colour.

Julia: When would you recommend a broad colour palette, and when would you suggest a narrow one?

Mark: It always depends on the project. Sometimes a project requires more variation in colour beyond the primary colour palette. This may be for complicated data visualisation or expressing illustrative styles that need to be richer beyond a narrow set of colours.


Hermes to Evri rebrand that kept the blue that Hermes were known for.
Julia: Finally, what’s your favourite colour?

Mark: I find it weird that anybody would have a favourite colour. When do you get to choose it? Can it change? Does it matter? If you have a favourite colour should that influence the work you do? I would hope not.

 

Ken Li


Design Educator / Graphic Designer / Design Observer / Blogger / Photographer / Shipping Container Lover / Born in British Hong Kong in 1974 / Graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 2007/ Trained & educated in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK / Practised & taught graphic design in Hong Kong & London since 1997 / Established an influential blog on design in 2005 / Moved to London in 2021 / Love idea-driven design / Hope to better the world with witty ideas and humour.

Find out more about Ken on his Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.


Julia: Have you noticed any recent colour trends with your clients?

Ken: I haven’t noticed any colour trends with my clients lately. Most of them are reasonable and not interested in following the trends blindly. But I do notice that quite a lot of young designers have been using very bright RGB or Risograph colours as a trend in recent years. I’m not entirely against trendy stuff, it’s fun to use stylish elements in design when needed. Every design decision should have a reason behind it, whether it’s rational or emotional.

Sometimes, a broad colour palette could help to establish a better narrative; sometimes a narrow one could distinguish the brand from the crowd.

Julia: Have you encountered client subjectivity around colour choices?

Ken: Yes, of course. Many years ago, I was working on a brand identity project. The client was very superstitious and believed in Feng Shui. Whatever colours we suggested for the brand, he would consult his Feng Shui master. My business partner and I tried to provide as many colour options as we could based on the agreed design brief and rationale. At last, the Feng Shui master was actually the decision maker of the colour scheme. Any professional advice from us was in vain.


Julia: When would you recommend a broad colour palette, and when would you suggest a narrow one?

Ken: It all depends on the needs of the project. Different brands have different needs in different contexts, regarding the genre, scale, market, target audience, usage, media channel, culture, etc. Sometimes, a broad colour palette could help to establish a better narrative; sometimes a narrow one could distinguish the brand from the crowd.

'It is primary. Love Your Earth.' The poster is designed for a design competition ‘Love Your Earth’ organised by Designboom in 2007.
Julia: Finally, what’s your favourite colour?

Ken: Yellow. I don’t know why, to be honest. I have loved yellow since I was very young. In my teenage years, I didn’t mention it much because it means erotic in our culture (like blue in the West). Now, I don’t mention it much because it politically means rebellion in Hong Kong. Anyway, every time I use or wear yellow I feel bright, smart, happy and creative. But I never use it for my clients just because of my personal preference.

 

Luke Gifford


Luke is 50% of the design and brand agency lukecharles. Having worked across many sectors helping global organisations achieve their objectives and redefine success through the power of design, Luke started his career at the internationally acclaimed Johnson Banks. In 2004, Luke joined the world’s leading brand consultancy Wolff Olins where he co-created the brand for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games with Charles Taylor. In 2009, Luke and Charles established lukecharles, a London-based studio helping organisations worldwide with big thinking and an unrivalled passion for design. Since forming, clients include the re-branding of Bupa, National Trust, MTV International, Somerset House, and the Royal British Legion.

Find out more about lukecharles on their website and follow them on Instagram.


Julia: Have you noticed any recent colour trends with your clients?

Luke: The studio prides itself on not having ‘a style’ or skewed by trends. Our colour palettes, like our typography or imagery choices, are all based on project relevance. Rooted in the brand personality and brand idea, the colour palette develops naturally and therefore can be easily understood by the client team.

Julia: Have you encountered client subjectivity around colour choices?

Luke: Not really. Whether it is a brand creation or brand refresh project, our colour palettes are always routed in the brand idea or inspired by the project’s lead theme. Often with a brand refresh, there is a lead corporate colour(s) already in play. Our approach is to work with this colour(s) but to contemporise it — making it fresher and brighter. A good example of this is our recent work for the Royal British Legion. The old brand used the national colours of the Union Jack and felt incredibly ‘chilly’ and not approachable. So, we picked a new red and blue that had a warmer/contemporary hue and supported it with a wider secondary palette inspired by colours associated with military ribbons. Collectively they created a distinctive, strong, and quintessentially British colour palette. Although the brand still leads with red and blue, the brand framework and the new colour theory therefore removed any discussions of subjectivity.

Rooted in the brand personality and brand idea, the colour palette develops naturally and therefore can be easily understood by the client team.

Julia: When would you recommend a broad colour palette, and when would you suggest a narrow one?

Luke: I recently visited Hockney’s Eye at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which was an incredible display of colour. As a studio, we have always loved David Hockney’s use of colour and how he never uses black. His mixing of colours has been our inspiration for extensive palettes. A broader colour palette can have its pros and cons, as it can be easily misused. Taking the National Trust brand as an example, the famous Oakleaf can use one of 23 colours rather than the previous dark and drab green. Therefore, the palette allows its extensive portfolio of ‘places’ to reflect their unique characteristics and personality through colour and imagery, giving the brand greater flexibility within a framework. On the flip side, other projects require a simpler/narrower palette to communicate their name or a singular idea. A recent rebrand project for Pilotlight did just this. With a pure and robust brand idea, we only used two colours (and white) to deliver an impactful brand using a white graded light source on a consistent yellow background with blue coloured typography amplifying the good work that’s done in the world.

Left: pilotlight rebrand. Right: Royal British Legion rebrand.
Julia: Finally, what’s your favourite colour?

Luke: During my college days, I loved orange. Sublimely, I think it was due to the fact I had goldfish in my room and a poster of Matisse’s Goldfish on my wall and the colour orange often featured in my Art School portfolio. As I look back now, with a wardrobe of Navy and Black, I cannot say I have a favourite colour, but continually find myself inspired by art and nature, which I am sure finds its way into my work and home life.

 

Thank you Marc Aktinson, Gilles & Cecilie, Syd Hausmann, Mark Wood, Ken Li and Luke Gifford for sharing their thoughts with me.



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