Advanced Color Issues for Identities

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Color Contrast
An identity needs to work in all situations, not just in ideal lighting or at optimal distances. It must be easily recognizable in compromised lighting or less-than-ideal reproduction. What might look great on your computer monitor can (and most likely will) look different when printed. This is especially true with blues; they invariably print much darker than they appear on screen. Unless you print on the same machine every time, there will always be variances. Even printers of the same brand will vary considerably in color output.

This is why you can’t cheat on or be careless about contrast as it appears on your monitor. The bare minimum contrast must be 40%. Why put your client’s identity in jeopardy of being hard to read?

Some think they are safe from color variations when designing for the web, but they are not. It used to be that you could design Web materials favoring the PC monitor gamma, secure in the knowledge that most viewers would see things as they were intended.

Not any longer. Every year Apple sales (including iPhones and iPads) have increased to the point that a designer who favors only the PC monitor gamma setting will miss about half the market. Contrasts that look okay on one screen may not work on another.

The contrast for a particular blue may look “good enough” on the screen, but blues almost always print darker than they show on screen. This identity was scanned from a glossy magazine print ad. Should a client be satisfied with an identity
that doesn’t show up?

For all these reasons, which should not surprise any professional designer, corporate identity design needs to include “contrast insurance.” You absolutely cannot say that “close enough” will work, given all the many variables surrounding where an identity will be used.

As was mentioned in the previous chapter, a logo can have as little as a 40% difference with its background. But a color with only 40% contrast on white will have less contrast on a background such as pink or light blue – perhaps only 10% or 20%. Colors lighter than 40% will not provide enough contrast on white backgrounds and will be nearly invisible on other light backgrounds.

Colors darker than 80% are easily mistaken for black because of printing variances, so the client pays for color but does not get the benefit.

Reversals on black should also follow the same 40% guideline. Very few colors will work reasonably well for both positive and reverse situations. Even so, if the background isn’t black, but a dark color, the 40% difference should still be maintained.

As has been mentioned, the most common practice in identity design is to use color for the logo and black for the signature. If the signature gets a color other than black, it is important to remember these two principles:

• The signature gets the greater contrast.

• There should be a noticeable difference in value between the logo and signature colors.

If a value difference of about 20% is used, the widest range of color combinations is possible. In these cases, the lighter color needs to be in the range of 40% to 50%, and the darker color in the range of 60% to 80%. When a non-corporate color is used as a background, the wise practice is to reverse an identity in white against any color dark-enough to provide appropriate contrast.

No color identity will work on every value of background. Logo colors at about 50% value may work equally well in positive and reverse, but only if the backgrounds are white or 10% or, alternatively, black or 90% respectively. As a result, many companies will have one corporate color that is used for white and light backgrounds, and a similar but lighter alternative for reversals.

Designers who use an inappropriate color, like a bright, process yellow, because of some association with the product will find that it just doesn’t work on white backgrounds. This is one reason that primary colors never work in identities.

In the chart shown here, the corporate color is used for the logo alone and black for the signature (top of left column). The result will be a range of compatible backgrounds that will give the 40% contrast needed.
If the corporate color is at least a 60% value, it may be used for both logo and signature (top, center columns), but even with an 80% value, only a narrow range of backgrounds will give the minimum 60% contrast needed for the signature.

Generally speaking, mid-value backgrounds should be avoided. It can be impossible to obtain enough contrast between such a background and any corporate color. When mid-value backgrounds cannot be avoided, often only an all-white version of the identity will give enough contrast (right column).

Many identities that use a darker color will require another corporate color for reversals. In the bottom of the left and center columns, the “Alternate Questor Aqua” is used, but with the same contrast constraints: 40% for the logo, 60% for the signature.

Signage and Vehicles
Most businesses need signage or vehicles identified. Since most signage and vehicle graphics are done in vinyl, it is a wise precaution to pick an identity color from one that is already available in vinyl. Not every color in the Pantone book comes in a matching vinyl, but you can get a matching Pantone ink for every standard vinyl color that exists. It makes sense, therefore, to look at vinyl colors before committing to any corporate identity color.

Custom vinyl colors can be made, but the client has to order thousands of rolls of such a color. While this may be fine for a national company, it is out of the question for a medium or small firm. Yes, one can get full-color printed vinyl, but again, the cost is more than the standard-cut vinyl, and process-printed vinyl isn’t as colorfast and, as of this writing, only lasts about a third as long as cut vinyl. For companies with large fleets of vehicles, this is no small financial consideration.

After choosing a vinyl color, it is a simple matter to identify the equivalents in Pantone inks, CMYK, RGB and Hexidecimal. This will enable a corporate identity to be as consistent as possible across different media.

Remember, a professional works in the client’s best interests, and any decision that will incur added expense should be the client’s decision, not the designer’s.

This logo was featured in a design annual as an innovative design. It isn’t. Not only does it not reproduce in black only, it also has internal contrast problems. And besides all that, it needs three shades of olive green, two of which are not available in solid vinyl.

Internal Contrast
Another factor that too many designers fail to consider is internal contrast. Here again, a 40% minimum contrast is needed between touching elements. If you use black for containing shapes, for instance, colors used for fill need to be 60% or lighter to provide the minimum internal contrast of 40%.

This identity is legible in black. In the color-filled version, two of the fill colors are too dark to give sufficient internal contrast. The red is marginal at best, and the blue is way too dark to be easily distinguished from the black. This can be corrected by substituting colors lighter than a 60% value, which will gives the 40% minimum difference needed
with the black containing shapes.

Busy Backgrounds
Boston Pizza recently redid its identity. It was not an improvement. It would have been far better for the circle containing the monogram BP to have been plain white. The new logo has a built-in busy background, which makes it very hard to read at a distance, where properly designed logos are quite readable.

Beyond that, the brown building background is close in value to the red signature, making it vanish. Altogether, very difficult to see and a massive expenditure for that company to end up with a worse identity than previous one.

Difficulties with Reversals
Most logos can be used in reverse without any problem. However, if the logo imagery makes use of values to indicate three-dimensional solid with highlights and shadows, a reversal will not give the desired effect. Another difficulty occurs when part of the logo represents something that must be light; switching that element to dark in the reversed version will, again, not give the desired effect.

The former AT&T logo could not be used as a straight reversal because it would look like the Death Star from Star Wars. Instead, a unique variation was designed for use in reversal situations that avoided this appearance. The KFC logo if reversed looked like an X-ray; they had to use a positive face over the reversal background. The lighthouse below looks like it broadcasts darkness in a true reverse. Here also, an alternate positive logo was inserted into the reversal background.

Original Positive Logos Accurate but Adjusted Reversal
Inappropriate Reversals Versions
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