How to Choose Beautiful & Accessible Brand Colors for Your Website

How do you select a set of colors that express the attitude of your brand, look great together, and pass WCAG accessibility standards? How many colors is too many? This step-by-step guide outlines OddBird’s process for tackling these challenges.

It’s important to define your brand goals first and review them throughout the process. Next, do some research for inspiration. What colors are the other companies in your field using? Use Paletton to generate a cohesive color palette. Test color contrast to ensure accessibility. Finally, create prototypes to make sure you colors work well in context.

Now that you have selected excellent typography that fits your brand to a “T”, it’s time to explore brand colors. How do you select a set of colors that express the attitude of your brand, look great together, and pass WCAG accessibility standards? How many colors is too many? How do you keep track of all these moving parts without getting completely overwhelmed? Color toolkit to the rescue! Over the years, I’ve collected several resources to help guide me through these challenges – many of which I used during OddBird’s open redesign process.

Step 1 – Define Brand Goals

It’s always important to review the brand goals with your team or your client multiple times during the brand identity design process so you don’t lose direction. Ask: What is the personality/attitude of the project? What is it not?

Though I had just reviewed OddSite Brand Goals during the process to choose our new typography, I looked back once again, this time sorting and grouping the words into categories of related terms. I found it helped to pick one keyword that best encapsulated all the words in each group. One group was “Odd, Quirky, Fun” and another “Trustworthy, Transparent, Honest”. Of those, I chose Odd and Trustworthy as my keywords.

If you try this technique you may want to re-organize your groups of words in several different ways. Chances are good that each of your brand words will be related to each other in many different ways. The process of sorting and resorting may offer new inspiration as you prepare to look for a color palette that makes your company stand out.

Step 2 – Research for Inspiration

Look at 10–20 websites of other companies in your industry. Then look at 10–20 of the best website color schemes to see what’s possible. There are so many inspiring lists of sites with beautiful color palettes. Don’t get lost down the rabbit hole! Notice what each color palette – saturated or desaturated, primary or Christmas-y, grayscale or unicorn rainbow – says about the company. How does each set of colors make you feel about each company?

Canva

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Design Seeds

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I looked at the sites of many web development agencies that I know and love as I considered OddBird’s color palette.

Happy Cog

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Mild Bunch

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Clear Left

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Crush Lovely

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Step 3 – Start [Color] Scheming

Now you’re ready to begin gathering sets of colors. But how do you keep from color clash? My favorite tool for the job is Paletton.

Paletton

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If you don’t yet have any color ideas in mind, think back to your brand goal words. Compare those to the attitudes and personalities of the color palettes you liked, or pick a color that the other people in your industry are not using. Then select the color by clicking on the color wheel or, if you know the hexadecimal value of a specific color that interests you, type it into the Base RGB field. Voila! You now have gradations of your base color – your first color palette. For a simple, stripped-down, unified look you could use variations of a single brand color on your website. Click the circles in the top right corner to find more related color combos. I recommend using two brand colors extensively throughout your website with a few additional accent colors for particular cases: body text or success or error.

OddBird already had two brand colors, so I used another favorite tool to expand our color palette and find colors that would look great with our brand colors. Because we write our style sheets in Sass, SassMe was the perfect tool for creating our palette. I entered OddBird’s dark blue and used the sliders to find a very dark color for the text and a very light “callout” background color for highlighting important information. SassMe converts the hex colors into Sass color functions for me.

SassMe

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OddBird saves our colors and typography in a living style guide, making it easier for designers like me to grab exact colors when I’m prototyping website pages or features.

Living Style Guide

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Step 4 – Test Colors for Accessibility

There are so many important considerations around color and accessibility, and I can’t tackle them all in this post. The most basic and important principle to keep in mind is to maintain high contrast between background and text colors.

Users will do what they need to do, and what they are accustomed to doing, in order to read. The main concern for web developers is to ensure a high degree of contrast for the general population of readers.

WebAIM

Contrast Ratio is my go-to web tool for the job.

Contrast Ratio

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Enter RGB or hexadecimal values as background and text colors. The circle in the middle will turn green if the two colors have high enough contrast to be placed on top of one another. Hover over the center circle to find out whether your color contrast passes AA or AAA and what font sizes and weights to use for text color.

WebAIM: Color Contrast Checker is also an excellent resource. You can lighten and darken your colors, right there in the tool, until you find two that work. Plus, Checker provides detailed descriptions of how to choose accessible colors, and accessibility articles if you’d like to dive deep.

WebAIM: Color Contrast Checker

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When I tested OddBird’s signature orange with Contrast Ratio I discovered that our dark blue passed AA level for any size text on a white background. Unfortunately, our signature orange failed WCAG 2.0. Darkening our orange to the point that it passed AA level changed the color so much that it no longer retained the bright, fun feel we needed. So I began the search for a new brand color.

Step 5 - Test Colors in Context

To really evaluate whether a particular set of colors will work for your project, I strongly recommend testing it in the context of your website. Does that fluorescent green actually work well as the link color or does your site have so many links that it becomes jarring? Does your logo look better in white or black with one of your brand colors in the background or vice versa? Try different combinations. Apply your colors to prototypes of actual content and elements.

To test OddBird’s colors in context I created element collages using a brand new tool still in beta, Adobe Experience Design. Xd is packaged with a Creative Cloud subscription and has been a delight to use. The tutorial is quick and clear and I was up and running, creating prototypes with ease just an hour after downloading the program.

Adobe Experience Design

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I created two element collages using exactly the same blog content to make the designs easy for me and the rest of the team to compare and contrast. Going back to the groups of words from my brand goals, I designed one prototype around my Odd group, and another to evoke the idea of Trustworthiness. I played with other design elements in the collages to create the desired personalities as well, but color was my main focus.

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Drawing on my research into other brands, I realized it could work well to pull in design elements and colors from the Susy, an open source layout framework that Miriam developed. This would create a stronger visual association between Susy and OddBird, potentially benefiting both brands. Susy pink, I discovered, would be a fantastic replacement for our orange. Bright, odd, and accessible, it was a good counterpoint to our serious, dark blue. The team loved the Susy tie-in, and OddBird’s new brand colors were born – er, hatched.

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In the end, we loved OddBird orange too much to cut it altogether, and we snuck it into the OddSite design. Can you find it? Hint: scroll back to the top and try refreshing the page.

As always, we want to know what your favorite web tools are for playing with color. Have you tried Xd? What did you think? We’ll be discussing this and more in our OddFriends Slack channel. Join us!

Bonus - Color Palette Inspiration

Color Palette FX

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HSL Color Picker

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Color Me

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Culrs

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Open Color

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Bonus - Color Contrast Tools for Accessibility

Colour Contrast Check

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Accessible Colors

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Adobe Plugin Check Contrast Ratio

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Sondra Eby is a brand and interface designer, user-tester, author, and musician.

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