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Designing with Color in the Digital World

By Shaun Culbertson | June 21, 2016


Designing with color in the digital world requires a specific outlook.

It’s the same new story — everyone is overbooked, multitasking, and instantly connecting to content through mobile devices. We’re spoiled by massive brands capable of delivering dynamic content quickly to the palms of our hands; we like instant gratification. Things will continue to get faster and faster as new generations emerge and digital devices evolve.

Okay, so what does being super busy, spoiled with content and mobile devices and massive brand communications have to do with designing with color? How can designing with color possibly benefit this ever changing way people communicate, conduct business, and purchases products and services? It’s simple and, in my opinion, unfortunate, because it breaks a classic design maxim that I love dearly. Here in the digital world, designing with color requires that Function Follows Form.

Before you toss tomatoes at me for contradicting the traditional, Form Follows Function, hear me out. I have four specific reasons why, in digital design, color is applied more with an eye to functionality than to form.

Why Function Follows Form When Digital Designing with Color

1) Emphasis: It’s no secret that when you interact with most websites, applications, emails, and digital advertisements, less color is more effective. When a lot of things are emphasized, then nothing is emphasized. Applying color to two or three words in a digital ad is enough to catch people’s attention. Or applying color as a background with white copy can stand out. This supports how the content functions in the layout, and not so much form.

2) Identification: Graphic design experts from talk about how logos are typically made up of a unique typeface, illustrated logo mark, and color palette. But in most digital devices and platforms, the display space is smaller, so the typeface is sometimes dropped. Which means you’re left with a brand’s logo-mark and a single color. That color’s function is to quickly distinguish a brand next to another brand while the logo-mark defines the visual separation.

3) Action: Type is mostly distinguished through the power of light and dark gray shades in contrast. This allows color to play the primary important role in text links, buttons, social sharing, backgrounds, and other digital functions.

4) Photography: Since what I’ve mentioned above is commonly true, you’ll see that often most of the color in a digital design comes from a compelling lifestyle photo or illustration. Since proper brand colors cannot always be aesthetically used in a layout design, it’s necessary to use content images — like photos. Illustrations, icons, and backgrounds can all be applied to support function using brand colors.

Do you agree that designing with color in digital means applying it to the most important functional elements and hierarchy in a layout? If you disagree, then most likely your digital layouts have not been thoroughly tested and are not being interacted with as much as you would hope. I love art, and engaging graphics, but most people don’t care. They want things to work, be fast, efficient, and make their lives easier. Designer’s just don’t make things look pretty — designer’s make life easier, more comprehendible, and purposefully more colorful.

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Shaun Culbertson

Shaun is our Digital Design Director. He directs the design and development of all our digital work and positions the creative in all digital channels. Shaun offers our clients more than fifteen years of digital experience. Extremely detail-oriented and design-focused, Shaun always looks to take the design to the next level. Before arriving at dR, Shaun worked as Senior Art Director at Adcom and Art Director at Rosetta. He has worked on several Fortune 500 brands, including Sherwin-Williams, Marriott International, and Rigid Tools.Outside of work, Shaun is an avid backpacker, dog lover, and aspiring Polaroid artist.

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