Color Sells Your Product: An Interview With Color Management Guru John Drew

An Interview With Color Management Guru John Drew

“I want ‘Color sells your product’ to be engraved on my tombstone,” says John Drew. Find out below why this color management guru is so passionate about choosing the right colors for your brand—especially your logo.

Professor John Drew
Professor John Drew

Drew takes logo colors about as seriously as anyone. A professor of graphic design at California State University, Fullerton, Drew has co-written multiple books on the topic, in addition to teaching courses on logo design for nearly 30 years.

We spoke with Professor Drew on a number of topics related to logo colors. If you’re a designer or a marketer, the following Q&A will help you understand (or remind you) just how important logo colors are. We’ll cover key areas like:

  • Why careful color selection is so crucial
  • How to ensure logo colors perform well across platforms
  • How to work more effectively with your printer
  • How to re-evaluate your logo colors   

Q: What does color management for logos mean?

From a graphic designer’s point of view, color management for logos refers to what needs to be done to accurately reproduce logo colors across all platforms, including print, screen, and 3D environments, both indoors and out. 

And that’s just for starters. Color management for logos also means considering the learned and/or psychological effects of color on people. Those are critical factors for logo design. 

It also happens to be the name of a graphic design text book I co-authored with my wife [a graphic design professor at Cal Poly Pomona]. That book is a comprehensive treatment of color issues involved in logo design and gives designers the technical know-how—and inspiration—to design logos effectively. 

Q: What are the most important design elements of a logo?

When I teach logo design, we cover the three major signifiers for how humans make sense of what they see. The first is the form or silhouette of something. Humans most often recognize an object by this signifier. Then there’s tone and texture. For example, think about seeing a shag rug. 

And then there’s color, which I believe is the most important element of a logo. 

Q: Why is color selection so important when it comes to logo design?

First, the hue and color combinations you choose will affect how well they can be seen from a distance. I’m not only talking about distance in terms of recognizing a logo on a billboard or something like that. I’m also talking about the distance from, say, a viewer’s eyes to a smartphone or computer screen or a brochure. 

Logo color selection is crucial when considering that about 1 in 12 men is colorblind, with red/green colorblindness being the most common. Now throw in another small percentage of women who may be colorblind. In addition, there are roughly 246 million people who are visually impaired or have moderately low vision.

Logo color selection is crucial when considering those who are colorblind, vision impaired or have moderately low vision.

Do you really want to create a logo where it’s possible that around 13% of the population may not be able to distinguish your logo colors—and by extension not recognize your brand? 

You also have to consider the power of color in terms of how you want people to feel about your product or company.  

Q: Can you explain what learned effects of color are?

Basically, those are the ideas about color that people absorb from the culture they grow up in. Designers and marketers need to consider the connotations that colors have in a given culture, especially in relation to the form you place the color in.

For example, I had a student who designed a beautiful red and gold color combination in a dollar bill-like form for a book cover. Another student, who happened to be from China, pointed out that the colors and design resembled paper money that Chinese people burn—during rituals for the dead.

Be aware of possible associations your logo may have.

There’s an important lesson there: You need to be careful that your logo doesn’t carry associations that are off-topic, distracting, or worse, offensive in some way. And this is really crucial if your brand’s reach is international—or you want it to be. 

Q: Can you give an example of the psychological effects of color?

Research into this is ongoing, but some hold that red, for example, has a stimulating effect on our metabolism, which among other things, can increase our appetite. 

Now think about that in terms of all the fast food restaurants where red is an integral logo color—McDonald’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., KFC. It’s a long list, and there’s a reason for that.  

Q: What’s a common mistake that companies make when it comes to their logo colors? 

Let’s say you have a logo mark or symbol that’s one hue and then you have the company or abbreviated company name underneath it in another color. Probably the most common mistake I see is not having enough color contrast between those two logo colors. 

The combination may look fine on a computer screen, but once you go to print it, the contrast may not be great enough to see at any kind of distance. 

Q: What can designers/marketers do to help ensure that their print vendor ultimately produces colors accurately? 

Well, to set the record straight, most of the problems that happen between designers and printers are the designer’s fault. They don’t set up the document correctly in the first place, so the printer either has to call them and tell them that they’ve got to make some changes, or they’ll do it for them.

Designers should probably use an ink-matching system. And that way the printer can pull the needed colors. Let’s say it’s Pantone 123. The file says 123, so the printer will then pull 123. So, it should be accurate. 

On the other hand, there are a lot of printers that may not take the kind of pride they should in the outcome of their printed work. 

I’ve experienced scenarios where the initial printed items looked great. But then the run continues, and maybe while the press person takes a break, the color starts to get a little lighter. That’s why printers should have good color management practices as well. 

Q: What can a printer do to help the designer in terms of color management? 

Any design firm or printer I’ve worked with usually has documentation that clearly lays out how they want you to create a file, store the file, name the file, etc. 

A file prep document from the printer is crucial.

Based on my experience, a good file prep document from the printer is crucial. When you’re told specifically how to set up a file for the printer, it can make it so much easier to hit the target the first time around, which obviously saves time and money, to say the least. 

If it’s not provided, a designer should always ask for one.

Q: What should companies know about when it comes to printing in house?

When companies opt to print materials in house, say on an inkjet printer or even on a laser printer, they should know that those printers aren’t really meant to match colors. They sort of simulate the color that you’re trying to get.

If they have really high standards and tight tolerance levels, they’re probably not going to adequately match their logo colors when printing in house on this type of equipment. 

Q: What technical steps can be taken to make sure a logo’s colors will perform well across different platforms?

First, begin by recognizing there are better and worse ways to design for logo colors across platforms. People often don’t realize that matching from one medium to another isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do.

This is really important to consider if you have a client say something like, “We’re a web-based company, so we just want a logo mark for the web.” But what if further down the line, they determine they want to add brick and mortar?

Designers should assume they need to match colors for print and screen-based experiences.

If you’re a designer, start with the assumption that you will need to match logo colors for various print and screen-based experiences. In fact, I would recommend you build colors for print first so that they match within the CMYK color spectrum. 

The process will be a lot easier than doing the reverse and starting with RGB for screen colors. CMYK is the smallest color spectrum, and if you choose your hues from this color space, you’ll be able to guarantee that the hues selected will match within the Pantone and RGB color spectrum.

Q: What should a company do if they want to re-evaluate their logo colors?

Well, I can give you a basic checklist for re-evaluating your colors: First, are the colors inclusive? Do they physically work for everybody? Or, for example, have you chosen colors that the majority of colorblind people won’t really be able to see at a distance?  

Second, are you maximizing the distance by which you can see the logo by the choice of your colors? The third is, are you maximizing the psychological effect of these colors for the culture in which it’s going to be used? 

And then fourth is, do you have enough color contrast between the colors you’re using so that it could be seen by people who are visually impaired?

These would be the top four questions I would ask. If your colors do all of those things, then you’re probably in good shape. But if a couple of those questions are problematic, you may want to consider altering your colors. Obviously that requires careful analysis because changing your logo is nothing to take lightly. 

To learn more about color management and logos, check out Drew’s book Color Management for Logos: A Comprehensive Guide for Graphic Designers

For more information on color management in printing, see Why Is Color Management Needed in Print Projects?

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