Professional Development I : Color

Posted on by Matthew Kramer-LaPadula


One thing that I consistently do when talking with other designers is to push professional development. Often, our jobs become a part of our daily routine and we fall into the, what I consider, terrible trap of allowing our career to become habit. It has always been my opinion that if you truly love what you do, it will become a part of your life ... so that you're working even when you're not "working". For instance, I'm constantly on the lookout for new design ideas, color schemes, layouts, and photographic and artistic inspiration.

With this in mind, I've decided to offer a series of blog posts on suggestions for professional development in the graphic design field. These suggestions are simple, but as I mentioned above, when work becomes routine, we often forget the fact that although we are professionals, we must consistently take the time to continue to develop our skills. When I took Kung Fu, I asked my instructor what happens after I get my white sash (in this particular form of Kung Fu the white sash, or belt, was the highest). He answered that obtaining the white sash was simply the point at which you were ready to seriously learn the techniques of the masters. In other words, all of the years of training and sparring up to the highest belt were just preparation to begin actually learning what was truly important!

This is such an important point in any career or hobby ... you are constantly learning. You can become a master of the "basic techniques" but no one is ever a master of everything. There is always something new to learn or experience. If you're not learning, you're not growing. Adding to this, I truly believe that the best way to learn is through experience ... tactile learning. Understanding what professional manuals, books, and blogs say about design is great and forms a strong foundation for further development but every job and client has their distinct nuances, obstacles, restrictions, and aesthetic preferences and only experience with navigating these obstacles will allow you to truly improve professionally.

That is a sufficient introduction and motivation for this series. I hope that you'll take something away even if it is only the motivation to improve your skills on a daily basis. Our first discussion is on developing color skills.


It took me a long time to understand just how critical color is to the field of graphic design. Harmonies and color spaces are standard fare for books on color theory but one thing I've found that expository texts have difficulty expressing is how colors actually impact us. For those that haven't read it, I highly recommend Itten's seminal text "Elements of Color"; it was recommended to me years ago and I serendipitously found a copy at a yard sale for about $5. There are two quotes I love:

  • "Doctrines and theories are best for weaker moments. In moments of strength, problems are solved intuitively, as if of themselves."
  • "Light, that first phenomenon of the world, reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors.

These two statements identify two main points that I've already alluded to in the introduction and earlier in this section, respectively: 

  • "Books smarts" get one only so far; experience is significantly more valuable in the long run.
  • Color strongly shapes how we perceive and judge the world ... and thus how we perceive and judge design.

The bottom line is you have to experience and experiment with color to truly understand how it works. Colors have behaviors ... not just individually but among other colors. Just like people, colors act differently around different colors ... and different proportions of colors. Because of this fact and the vast multitude of colors that exist, it is truly important to consistently work with and experiment with color.

Here are my tips for professional development in understanding and working with color.

  • When you see a design that is appealing ... identify how the colors are working together to make the design more appealing. Are there complements fighting with each other in proportion to create a feeling of action and energy? Is one color dominant, and if so, why was that color chosen as the dominant color? What feelings do the individuals colors evoke and how do they work together to evoke a different emotion? How do the proportions of the colors affect the overall message and what if the proportions were changed? How saturated, bright (or dark), and luminous are the colors?
  • Understand the difference between hue, saturation, and value/brightness by experimenting in Photoshop (or similar software). In Photoshop, lay down a spectrum gradient and add adjustment layers for brightness and hue/saturation. Play with the sliders to see what effect they have on each individual hue. This should help you get comfortable with where colors stand in relation to each other.
  • Learn how to work with curves! Almost any photo editing software has curves adjustments. Most importantly, change the curves in the channels individually to see how the channels interact with each other. Start with a spectrum gradient or solid background and then work with a photo. When experimenting with a photo, I recommend aiming for a target ... in other words, open the photo and give yourself a goal like desaturating the skin tone a little while trying to leave the saturation of the background intact; or brightening the dark red of a dress while leaving the lipstick brightness intact. This will help you get used to knowing how to achieve specific goals rather than randomly encountering interesting effects. Use your observations from the spectrum gradient and solid color experiments to help guide you.
  • Make and experiment with your own palettes! Use Adobe Kuler or Color Scheme Designer to play around with harmonious color palettes. I'd recommend Kuler for Adobe product users because it integrates well with applications like Photoshop and Illustrator; however, Color Scheme Designer's layout is much more appealing and they offer features to view palettes in different forms of color blindness.
  • Read books on color theory ... they not only refresh foundational information but also offer interesting new examples of design and how colors work together. I've already recommended Itten's book but a more recent published work is "Color Design Workbook: A Real World Guide to Using Color in Graphic Design" by AdamsMorioka which is available on CreativeEdge, if you're a subscriber. This book offers great case studies, examples, references, and tips for designers.

To summarize: read, experiment, and start asking questions. There's a world of color around you including magazines, posters, movies, and nature. Learning is just about asking the right questions about what inspires you and not being afraid to experiment with new color concepts!