UI Color palette

How to create the best UI color palette

Ondřej Pešička
Ondřej Pešička
· February 9, 2022 · 11 min read

Creating a color palette can be a daunting task. The choices you make not only impact your users but also your colleagues. Here is our guide for creating a better UI color palette. We will guide you through every step - from finding colors, generating shades, to naming conventions. Let's jump in!

What makes a great palette?

Before we get deep into finding colors, we have to define a great palette. Any palette has two main goals - to look good and be easy to use.

Good looking color palette

To help us achieve these things, we can use color theory (we will dive deeper into this when finding color).

Easy to use color palette

If your palette is hard to use, your hard work picking the right colors will be wasted.

Note on ready-made color palettes

It may be tempting to skip all this and use one of the many ready-made palettes. That may be a good starting point. But since the palette is not designed with your specific use case in mind, you will soon run into issues and the need to adjust. Any great product has a well-designed palette to go with it.

Let's get started

Every palette starts with base colors. The amount you will need is specific to your project. For example, a product with lots of charts will need more base colors than a simple app. Base colors have three main categories:

Primary (brand) colors

Most products have one, maybe two brand colors. They are used for primary actions and drawing users' attention. Brand colors are the first thing to decide on as they affect the rest of your palette.

Primary color used in user interface

Semantic colors

Semantic colors help us convey meaning to users. For example, red is seen as dangerous, similarly green has a positive implication. Typically you will need:

Semantic colors used in user interface

Neutrals

Most elements in your interface will use neutral colors (text, lines, backgrounds, etc.). Some recommend avoiding pure black on white as the contrast can be tiring to the eyes. But be careful not to go too light to keep high legibility.

Neutral colors used in user interface

How to find base colors

Like with all creative things, there is no single process to follow when looking for base colors. Here are a few methods that we use:

Color meaning

Throughout human evolution, we have created associations between colors and emotions. We are drawn to red fruit over green because the color indicates ripeness. Considering these meanings when looking for colors can help us achieve the desired effect. But keep in mind that color meaning can vary across different cultures.

Main color families and their meanings
Main color families and their meanings

Pro tip: Use Atmos's color generator to find colors that match your desired meaning.

Color combinations

To find great color schemes we can use the color wheel. The color wheel shows relationships between colors (schemes). The main ones are:

Complementary, Analogous, and Triadic color schemes
Complementary, Analogous, and Triadic color schemes

Pro tip: Create semantic colors from primary color using the color wheel

We can use the color wheel to find semantic colors that are harmonious with the primary color.

  1. Firstly use your primary color to find a color wheel scheme that will produce either red or green color
  2. After that using the complementary scheme, find the opposite color (green or red)
  3. Finally, find yellow using the tetradic color scheme (four evenly spaced colors) from your green or red
Process of finding semantic colors from primary using the color wheel
Process of finding semantic colors from primary using the color wheel

This process usually produces good color combinations, but don't hesitate to tweak the results to your liking.

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Creating shades

After you have selected your base colors, it is time to start creating shades from them. Shades are necessary to have a flexible palette for all possible use-cases and contrast needs.

Color palette with shades created from base colors

How many shades is enough?

Most palettes have around 6--10 shades per color and around 10 shades for the Neutrals (grays).

More shades = more decisions and maintenance

It may be tempting to create as many shades as possible "Just to be safe". But this will leave you with decision paralysis when designing. Rigorously trim down the number of shades until you end up with a flexible yet compact palette. Remember that you can always add more if necessary.

Lightness

To determine the darkest and lightest shades, consider how you will use them in the interface. Dark shades are used for text while light shades are mostly for tinted backgrounds. It's best to test your shades on an example UI (a few fields, buttons, and boxes should do the trick).

Generally, a lightness range of 95 to 30 seems to be the sweet spot. Any lighter and the colors are barely distinguishable. On the other hand, darker colors lose saturation rapidly.

Hue

One way to make your shades feel just right is to shift the hue values. With this method, you slightly change the hue value as you move from light to dark shades. Leaving you with a bit more vibrant colors.

For example, yellow is a good candidate for this. As you decrease lightness, the nice yellow becomes muddy. To avoid that, you can slowly decrease its hue value towards orange and red. The result will be nicer dark yellowish-orange shades.

Yellow with the same hue compared to hue shifted yellow
Yellow with the same hue compared to hue shifted yellow

Some colors benefit from this method more than others. Experiment, try wild shifts and you may find the perfect shade for you.

Pro tip: Use Atmos's hue shifting feature, to quickly try out different hue curves.

Saturation

It's good to wait with choosing saturation until you have the lightness and hue values set. When choosing the shades saturation, there are two things to keep in mind:

Saturation of neutral colors

Pure grayscale doesn't exist in nature and may seem unnatural. It is a common practice to use primary color with low saturation. The result is tinted grays that nicely work with the other colors.

Pure grayscale compared to tinted grays
Pure grayscale compared to tinted grays

What about color accessibility?

Not everyone perceives color the same way. According to WHO estimates, 2.2 billion people have some kind of vision impairment. So it's really important to consider if your colors have enough contrast and if they are distinguishable.

Color contrast

It's good to think about how your colors will be used in the interface now so you don't have to come back later. For example, will you need to put text on tinted backgrounds, how will your primary button look like, etc? Continuously check the contrast ratios between the shades you plan to use together and double-check later in your designs.

WCAG recommended thresholds (for passing AA requirements) are:

Color blindness

Also known as color vision deficiency (CVD) affects about 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world. There are 3 different types of color blindness:

Different kinds of color blindness visualized

99% of people who are color blind are suffering from red-green color blindness

To ensure color combinations are distinguishable check your colors using color-blind simulators. Don't rely only on color to convey information use words or iconography. Support color with iconography or text. Learn more about these techniques in WCAG guideline 1.4.1 Use of color.

Naming convention

Naming conventions can make or break a palette. Why? Intuitive naming conventions have a big effect on the color palette's usability.

Colors

There are multiple approaches to naming your colors. You can use abstract names Tuatara, real names Light blue, or the color's function Success. We recommend the latter as it makes the palette usable by anyone. The most common functions are:

Abstract vs. Real vs. Function color naming conventions
Abstract vs. Real vs. Function color naming conventions

Shades

The most flexible and predictable naming convention for shades is to use numbers from 0 (white) to 1000 (black). The numbers are assigned based on the lightness of the shade.

Adjectives vs. Numbered naming convention
Adjectives vs. Numbered naming convention

Why are numbers the best? This approach gives you the room to expand your palette without renaming existing shades. For example, if you would like to add a new shade between Primary light and Primary lighter, how would you name it? With numbers, you would have Primary 400, Primary 300, and add Primary 350.

Tools to your rescue

There are many tools out there that will help you on your journey of creating the perfect color palette. Here are some of our favorites:

Atmos

We've designed Atmos to be THE tool for creating a color palette - from finding colors through generating shades to fine-tuning your palette. If you're a total beginner or design professional, Atmos has everything you need to create your next color palette.

Color wheels

Color generators

To sum it up (TLDR)

Creating a color palette is a complex and important process. Follow these principles to achieve the best results:


That's it, good luck with your color palette! 🎨

If you enjoyed this article, I'm sure you will find Atmos helpful. Whether you are just starting a color palette, or your current could use some tweaking, then you should give Atmos a shot! Hey, it's free 🚀

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free in minutes

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