Catalog Design Handbook

4. Choosing colors and using them effectively

Color adds interest and emphasis. It can highlight important items and draw the reader’s eye to specific elements on the page. How you use color also depends on how you plan to output your catalog.

Some colors reproduce equally well on just about any output equipment. Others fall outside the reproduction gamut of some types of printing equipment and may be challenging to view on your computer monitor. A device’s gamut represents the range of colors and shades it can represent.

In the section on output methods, we discuss the concepts of spot and process color. Spot colors represent premixed inks that load into a printing press, each as a specific color. Process-color printing relies on four primary inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) that combine on the press to produce a wide range of shades. Some bright, highly saturated spot colors don’t translate well to process color.

These shades may be difficult for digital printing equipment to reproduce faithfully as well. When you choose and implement color accents (for type, graphic elements, and page backgrounds), rely on colors that favor your chosen output methods.

If you plan to distribute your catalog only in digital form, you can use any colors you like, but remember that what you see on screen may not represent the way the colors would appear on an output device that’s capable of reproducing them accurately on paper.

Selection criteria and methods

Color selections always require thoughtful attention. Which colors show up in your products themselves? Which colors appear in your logo? Your best color choices accent and harmonize with the shades and tones that you’re already using.

Designers use swatch books that display samples of all the colors in the process or spot color systems they use. Placing a swatch next to an object is one way of finding out what color will match the object. Once you identify a suitable color, you can use it in the page-layout program you choose. Additionally, your logo most likely was designed using specific shades from a defined color system. Ideally, the person who designed it gave you a full set of notes on the colors used. You can use these notes to select colors to implement in your catalog design.

Note on prodalist: prodalist permits to define a color palette in the Options menu. These colors can be either automatically or manually retrieved in several section of the software (background designer, section styles …). 

What colors say

Colors also convey mood and emotion, but the correlations between colors and these states vary from one culture to another. If you know that your customer demographics point to one specific part of the world as the dominant source of your revenue, study the color usage in that area and adjust your color selections to harmonize with societal norms and traditions.

For example, western civilizations wear black to funerals and associate black as the color of mourning. In other parts of the world, white serves the same purpose. A catalog with a generalized distribution that doesn’t favor one geographic area faces fewer potential constraints on color usage.

Color families

Color selection involves making aesthetic decisions. Many designs center around two carefully chosen colors that contrast harmoniously with each other, such as blue and yellow, purple and gold, or brown and green.

Some designs add a third color to the palette of accents. In addition to the full-strength versions of these colors, designers can add tints that produce lighter shades for use in accents and as background shades. These tints consist of percentages of the base color. Of course, some colors translate into identifiably different shades when they’re used at less than full strength, especially red, which becomes pink.

As a result, it’s important to select dominant colors with an eye to how you can use them and what impressions they may convey.

Color for readability

In addition to clarifying the relationships among the colors you choose, strongly consider selecting at least one color that’s dark enough to use for the occasional short stretch of text, such as a headline or subhead.

Light colors do not produce highly readable type, especially at small sizes, unless you place the text in front of a dark background.

That combination produces enough contrast to make the text discernable.

Reverse type

Designers refer to the placement of light-colored text over a dark background as reverse type.

This technique can add a touch of drama to a page design. However, most people find long stretches of reverse type difficult to read, especially at small sizes. The result can be an attractive page that readers skip or skim because of its challenging legibility.

Tip: Select two or three accent colors that harmonize with each other and with your logo. Keep color use consistent so it conveys the same type of information or level of importance each time it appears (for example, always use red to indicate warnings or green to identify best practices). Avoid using a large number of colors unless you need a broader color palette to identify a wide range of product lines. Too many colors can cause visual confusion.

Tip: When you’re planning your logo (or if you’re planning to redesign it), choose colors that reproduce well in a variety of output methods. A matched set of spot and process colors chosen from recognized color systems will give you the greatest amount of flexibility and simplify the task of making your catalog visually consistent with the rest of your expressions of company identity.

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