Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don’t Always Fit Color Theory

Instagram posts or articles on design blogs provide examples of the “right” and “wrong” way of designing. They are usually indicated by a green check mark and a red cross, respectively. While there are reliable and proven patterns that often work better than others, it’s not worth telling product designers (especially beginners), “This is the only correct way to mark up a form, card, use color or typography,” and so on.

Design is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

I have collected several examples of such dubious recommendations, but out of respect for the authors, I deleted information about them.

“The color of the car can be any, provided it is black.”

– Henry Ford

Natural and unnatural color

I came across a post on Instagram about why designers should only use naturally occurring colors in their projects, rather than bright colors that people think are “unnatural.” There is some truth in this statement. Indeed, people are attracted to flowers found in nature, but not everything is so simple.

Illustration from the post about correct / incorrect color

A study by Psychology Today discusses how people in test marketing gravitate towards bright colors. Color can be a powerful design tool for both your brand and customer behavior.

Think about a bag of Doritos chips or a Skittles package. These colors have been tested and selected with the intention of influencing our choices in a variety of ways.

How about some popular app logos. Like the gradient Instagram logo, the bright yellow Snapchat logo, or the turquoise / purple pseudo 3D TikTok logo? Snapchat has made the decision to reinforce its brand in yellow so that their icon stands out from a sea of ​​muted icons.

Learn more about colorful icons in apps

Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory
Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram logos

Don’t get hung up on color

Spotify is another example of a company whose brand is full of vibrant and often deliberately sharp contrasting colors.

Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory
Spotify Artists Mosaic Poster

Should you avoid natural colors and use only bright colors instead? No! Again, this is about your brand and what you want to communicate to your customers. There are many examples of natural tones, including the Venmo, Amazon or Dropbox logos.

Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory
Venmo, Amazon and Dropbox logos

You don’t have to use specific colors for specific industries

I agree that different colors and temperatures can transmit different and subtle psychological signals. But telling designers what colors to use for specific industries is challenging. Here’s an example from another post that tells designers what colors are “right” for financial applications.

Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory
Illustration from the post about correct / incorrect color

Imagine you are creating a new financial application and want to stand out. You audit competitors’ apps and find that they are all shades of blue. Looking to create another blue brand app? Not if you want to stand out.

Is green associated with money (in the US)? What if the blue just doesn’t match your brand color, like the red TurboTax logo? We want customers to associate color with our product and not with the industry as a whole.

Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory

Real-world colors are good in theory, but not always in practice.

The following slides from an Instagram post discuss the use of colors from the real world for products that mimic the real world. In some cases, this might work. For example, Hello Fresh uses bright green to represent wholesome fresh food.

The example below shows designers how to choose a color for their products. He suggests choosing from the real world colors that reflect the nature of the product you are designing.

Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory
Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory

Netflix uses red because the cinema seats are red, right? Perhaps this is how Netflix defined its branding. But in my city, the theater seats are black and dark green, does that mean my new streaming app should use black or green? Not all things in the real world are the same.

It would be better if the guidelines describe different ways of choosing a color, rather than the only sure way that designers “should” choose a color.

The color spectrum of other streaming apps

If we take a look at the competitors of Netflix, we find a varied color palette.

Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory

Imagine if all streaming services used red because this is what movie theaters look like?

Why Good / Bad Design Guides Don't Always Fit Color Theory

Knowledge sharing with the design community

The dissemination of knowledge is important. It helps designers grow. We need to be careful not to absolve design decisions by calling them right or wrong. Design is a complex and evolving discipline, so we constantly learn which solutions work, but it also needs to consider where and when the rules should be changed.

Guidelines are better off discussing why certain approaches have been successful for their product, rather than recommending universal truths be applied to all products and patterns.

Thanks for reading, friends!

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