Do you have a favorite color?
If you’re a designer, I hope your answer is no. Every color can look good or bad, and be valuable or useless, depending on where and how it is used.
In this blog post we’ll help you find colors for your next book project.
In design, everything depends on context, mood, and audience. But you know this. Perhaps what you want to learn is how to narrow your color choices to make sure they are appropriate for a particular book.
As a general rule, use the smallest number of colors that will serve your purpose. Just because millions of colors are at your disposal, it’s never a good idea to use them all. Okay, enough preaching—let’s get down to business. How many colors do you really need?
You can do a lot with black ink. In fact, a 1-color book is my favorite kind. I love to create as much variation as possible within the constraints. I’ll let these examples show you what I mean.
Two colors (usually black plus one spot color)
A 2-color book is becoming a rarity these days because it is only practical with offset printing. If you know you’re going to print offset, check out the PANTONE Matching System (PMS)—it’s used by printers and designers worldwide. Each color has a number and a specific formula of mixed inks, just like the paint colors that are made for you at the hardware store. These are called spot colors.
In InDesign you can find and choose PANTONE (PMS) colors in the Swatches panel, but I recommend looking at printed color chips because printed colors look different from the ones on your screen. If you don’t have your own PANTONE color specifier book, ask your printer to mail you a few chips so you can see what the colors really look like.
Here are some guidelines for picking a PMS number:
- For backgrounds only, choose a light color.
- For decoration, choose a strong color that you can also use as tints for backgrounds. Test out the tints to see if they are any good because sometimes a tint of brown looks pink, for instance. You don’t want any surprises.
- For type, choose a dark color, but not one that will be confused with black.
- For photos, choose a dark, rich color that will look strong in the darkest areas of the image.
- For photos of people, let’s just say that nobody looks good with blue or green skin.
Once you’ve narrowed your choices, you can begin to look for a color that reflects the mood and content of the book. And did you know that you can mix black with your second color to create an entire third range of colors? This can also include photos, as duotones. (I’ll explain mixing colors and making duotones in a future blog post.)
When you use a PMS color, specify its Color Type as a spot, not a process, color in the InDesign Swatches palette.
A full color palette can consist of any number of colors, whether RGB for an ebook, or CMYK for a print book. In a complicated book you may need 10 or even 15 or more colors. Once I worked on a textbook that had 11 different varieties of sidebar and several other things going on. The palette for that book was the most difficult I ever came up with; I think it had 20 colors. If you run into a project like this, you know the whole thing is just too complicated for its own good. Just do your best to simplify the design where you can, stick with a core of colors for the most part, and use some secondary colors to differentiate one design element from another.
In the ebook version of Book Design Made Simple, we kept the palette to a minimum with black plus 4 RGB colors (see the title page below)—it was all we needed.
How to come up with the right colors for your book
The book itself will lead you to some appropriate color choices. Here are some hints:
- Think of your audience. Bright, primary colors are often used for children. Trendy colors for teen readers can be found in teen magazines. In fact, magazines are an excellent place to get ideas to please any audience.
- The subject is important. If the book is about the ocean, perhaps you should stick with a range of blues, greens, and grays. If the action takes place in a foreign country, research the location and pick locally used colors. (An excellent book on this topic is The Designer’s Guide to Global Color Combinations by Leslie Cabarga.) If the book is about art or a craft, pick up colors from key illustrations.
- What is the mood or tone of the book? Do you need bright hues, subdued tones, hints of neon?
- Do you have a good variety? Don’t neglect the rainbow! Has ROYGBIV ever steered you wrong?
- Consider ink density (or TAC, total area coverage) if you are offset printing. For each color, add up the percentages of ink coverage in C, M, Y, and K, and make sure they don’t exceed 210% (or 300%—check with your printer).
- Also consider line width if you are offset printing. Be aware that it’s difficult to print very fine lines (in small type and lines thinner than 0.5 pt) with more than one ink color because if the two colors aren’t lined up perfectly, it won’t look right.
And feel free to steal from other designers. I keep a file of interesting color combinations that I hope will kickstart future projects.
Okay, but how . . . ?
You may work with your colors any way you wish, of course. Feel free to use the Color Theme Tool in InDesign (see chapter 58 of Book Design Made Simple) to create color palettes based on images in your book. Also, Adobe Illustrator has excellent preset color themes for you to adopt. Or you can go old school, the way I do, and sit down with a piece of white paper and chips of color. I usually use CMYK PANTONE color chips along with samples from other sources such as those from my file folder of color combinations (see above). Physically handling the colors allows me to see what they will really look like when printed. And I can easily move my pieces of paper around, overlap them to see if they clash or blend too much, make a rainbow array to see if anything is missing, and move them from bright to dim lighting. My method has the added advantage of taking me away from the computer for a while.
Once you think you’ve selected a good set, work with it until you’ve assigned colors to each element in the book. This really helps you focus. You might find that you have more colors than you need, or not enough. Narrow it down or expand it. You’ll probably use tints of some of the colors, so set those up in InDesign in the Swatches panel. (Do not use the Tint slider in the Swatches panel for shades of any color.) For instance, for the green color shown above (45C/0M/35Y/25K), you might make lighter swatches like this: 23C/0M/18Y/13K and 12C/0M/9Y/7K, as shown below.
We hope this little tutorial will put you on the right track in creating a color palette. We want you to enjoy this important, creative, and colorful part of the book design process.