10 color inspiration secrets only designers know about


“Color: what a deep and mysterious language!”

[1] Specific hues can provoke different emotions, associations, and responses that affect how your brand is perceived. Put simply, color choices can make or break a design. In fact, research has shown that color can increase brand recognition (by up to 80%), memory, engagement with a design piece, text comprehension, among many others.

Fortunately, we are far from the times when our color choices were limited to a small batch of natural pigments. Our options are no longer whatever colors minerals, animals, and plants had to offer. Synthetic pigments and the screen have made our lives increasingly easier, while making deciding infinitely more complex. With such an overwhelming amount of color options, selecting a palette for a design project has become excruciating, to say the least. The Colourlovers community has indexed nearly 8 million user-named colors, while there are over 16 million possible hexadecimal color combinations.

Overwhelmed yet? No need to worry. We asked top designers from the Creative Market community to share their best tricks & advice for creating stunning color combinations. Take note of these 10 insider secrets and bring them into your next Canva project:

[1] Words from French artist Paul Gauguin

Want to see what Canva’s senior graphic designer, Poppie Pack, can do with color in Canva under 3 minutes? Watch the video at the bottom of the post to find out.

01. Capture inspiration on-the-go.

Callie Hegstrom, the talented designer behind Make Media, suggests: “I snap photos of gorgeous color schemes (like flowers, or sunsets), and later sample those colors directly in Photoshop or Illustrator. It’s also a great way to match text or graphics with any photo you’re working with to make sure your work is cohesive.”

So, if you have a photograph with a colour scheme that you love, sample colours directly from it to make a quick, easy and effective palette. Tools like Photocopa make this technique even easier. Simply upload your image, explore the different hues that make it up, and build a stunning color palette in no time at all.

Manhattan Darling Typeface

Callie Hegstrom (@MakeMediaCo) gets her inspiration from real-life color palettes.

02. Use your color wheel

Artist Marc Chagall came up with a pretty amazing quote to remember what works in terms of color combinations: “All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites”. In this case, “Friends” stands for analogous colors: those that are side by side on a 12-part color wheel. On the other hand, Chagall refers to complementary colors as “Lovers”; tones that are directly opposite each other on the wheel.

Cindy Kinash, the Vancouver-based designer behind Cultivated Mind, explains that “When painting watercolor flowers, a good way to show shadows is to add an analogous color.”

Mulberry Script

In this piece by Cindy Kinash, light blue is paired with darker blue and purple to create a sense of depth.

This tip works for almost everything else you can think of. Play with analogous color schemes to add shadows to your titles or borders to your backgrounds. These colors usually blend well because they are closely related. Find unique combinations by simply matching colors to their neighbors on the wheel!

But if you’re not keen to sort out these schemes manually, fear not, because there is an abundance of online tools at your disposal to help you figure out your favorite colors’ friends and lovers. Save some time and see what you can make up with tools like Adobe’s Kuler.

03. Borrow from interior design

Different design fields share common challenges when dealing with color. Interior designers, for example, have to harmonize spaces using textures, objects and color schemes that blend well together.

In this respect, British designer Elena Genova (from MyCreativeLand) offers some key advice: “I do like the interior design rule that is pretty much applicable to graphic design too: 60% – dominant color, 30% – secondary color, 10% – accent color. If you’d like to introduce a fourth (and so on) color, split the secondary color (or perhaps the dominant but never the accent).”

VeryBerry Pro Cyrillic

Try to delve into other creative fields and discover their rules of thumb when it comes to color use – every artistic discipline is bound to have a few! If you keep your eyes peeled for rooms and buildings that use color well, you’ll tap into a whole new world of awesome color techniques.

04. Save what works

Nicky Laatz, owner of a typography and design shop, shares how she stores stunning color palettes for later use:

“Whenever I see a picture or photo with colours that I love, or that really seem to go well, I screenshot it or pin it for later. Then, when its time to find a good color palette, I go to all my saved images for inspiration and I always find something appropriate.”

Vanilla Frosting Typeface

Vanilla Frosting, one of Nicky’s top fonts, features this colorful image inspired by bakeries.

Allow yourself to search for palette inspiration anywhere – in contemporary designs, or historical art; in online sources, or print sources.

You probably know about the usefulness of sites like Pinterest that can allow you to save and catalogue all kinds of digital palettes. But, what about physical pieces of inspiration?

Designer and author of the book ‘Steal Like An Artist’, Austin Kleon, is a big advocate for the ‘swipe file’ – a notebook or folder where you can stick inspiring examples of design and color that you love. So, if you’re ever reading a magazine, pick up a cool pamphlet, or just like the way a piece of junk mail has used color in its design, stick it in the file. Then, when you’re trying to develop a beautiful palette, dig out your swipe folder and have a flip through. Instant color inspiration!

Nicky keeps a Palettes board in her Pinterest profile, where she stores attractive color schemes for later use. You can see the relationship between the inspiration she gets from pins like “14 Citrus Color Palettes” and the color schemes in products like Vanilla Frosting.

05. Break out the trusty Pantone set

Sometimes a digital color wheel just won’t cut it. It can be incredibly inspiring to step away from the screen and instead look at a physical color swatch, and that’s exactly what Pantone sets provide.

Designer Callie Hegstrom breaks out her trusty Pantone Color Bridge set whenever she wants to select colors the old-fashioned way.  She explains that “sometimes it’s nice to have a physical guide that doesn’t just rely on screen colors. It’s also helpful if a client has a very specific color need, and they want to see physical samples.”

The nice thing about Pantone swatches? Not so old-fashioned after all! Every Pantone color comes with its HEX equivalent. You can even use hexadecimal colors in the Canva color picker for quick and easy palette development.

Pantone swatches and other physical color index sets are also fantastic for any designer who is crafting something for print purposes. Knowing exactly how your color will look when it’s on paper can save you so much time, money and stress when it comes time to head to the printers.

06. Bring in colors from nature

Our eyes are used to admiring natural color schemes. If you take your inspiration from the environment, suggests Gary from the CO-OP, “the color combinations are endless”. Landscapes, foliage, fruit, all things natural can be amazing, accessible and free sources of color inspiration. Gary designs in South Africa, where he built his online shop, and is constantly influenced “by the bright South African sunshine. The colors are warm and striking.”

Textured Watercolors

It’s fairly easy to see where Gary find inspiration from with these watercolor textures – from the warmer, sunset-like colors of “Fire Red”, to the cooler, plant-inspired hues in “Forest Green”.

It can be easy to get stuck searching for inspiration online and in others’ work, but there’s a whole world of inspiration just outside your window, just begging to be tapped into.

07. Stick to 3 or 4 colors

Unless you’re going for a deliberate, full-on rainbow look, avoid combining an excessive amount of colors. Rodrigo German, a Chilean graphic designer, recommends using three colors to keep your graphics looking clean, and not too overwhelming. When using more than three, he suggests adding in textures to tone down some of those additional colors.

Marty Spring

In this piece for his Marty font, Rodrigo sticks to three main colors: pink, black and green. He also plays with texture to achieve the right amount of contrast.

So, if you’re ever creatively stuck with your design, or think there’s just something that isn’t working, look at your palette and ask yourself if you can cut down the number of colours in your palette – ideally down to the magic number: three.

08. Match color to your topic’s mood

Consider the topic that you are trying to portray in your design piece. Is it sports, fashion, beauty, or business? From there, think about a specific mood that you would like to associate with the activity. Is it a cute fashion flyer, or an aggressive sports brochure? Is it feminine, cheerful, serious or elegant?

Salome, the designer behind Graphic Box, suggests coming up with a rough definition of the color theme before you go ahead and work on the details. “For example: ‘I need a romantic purple’ or ‘I want a cute pink’.”

Autumn Collection

For her fall graphic kit, Salome relied on earthy greens, pale oranges and worn-out reds.

Have a look around at photographs, designs and any other creative sources that capture similar tones, ideas and emotions as you would like for your design. What similarities are there? What differences?

Another good technique to build your color choice’s strength and effect is to familiarise yourself with color theory. Do a little research, read a few studies, and find out what some common colors can do to people psychologically and subconciously when used correctly. Remember: colors that are chosen with purpose and reason can often the most effective!

09. Search Pinterest for themed palettes

Pinterest holds an impressive amount of color palettes curated by creatives all around the world. Ian Barnard, creator of Vintage Design Co., explains his search process below:

“If I was doing a design for a beach themed poster, I would do a simple search under ‘Summer Color Palettes’ and choose one”

This is what a simple search for “Summer Color Palettes” looks like on Pinterest. The best part? You’ll get color inspiration from different design fields: interiors, fashion, graphic and even event design.

10. Follow sites for color lovers

Colourlovers is a creative community where people from around the world create and share colors, palettes and patterns. Join the site and explore over 3.7 million user-created color palettes to inspire your ideas.

. Now, over to you

Color can make or break designs. It can make things beautiful and serene, or intimidating and sharp, the choice is yours, because it all boils down to a careful and intentional use of hues.

Whether you collect pieces of inspiration, find it in the outdoors, or just make them up as you go, a good color palette often leads to a good design, so why not experiment with a few different techniques to bring some life into your design

How do you use color in your designs and where do you find your  inspiration? Do you have any rules of thumb, tools or techniques up your sleeve? If so, go ahead and share them down in the comments!

Watch to See What Poppie Pack Can Do With Color in Canva: