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Tips for Choosing Label Colors

Between 65% to 90% of consumers form their first impression of a product based largely on color. It takes less than 90 seconds for a customer to judge whether they want to purchase an item. Your labels need to create a connection in a short amount of time. Understanding the role of color can help you design product labels that will attract more sales or information labels that work better in your environment. Here are some tips for choosing label colors.

Hues, Shades, Tints, Tones

color wheel with all 12 colors

First, a bit of terminology. Pure or saturated colors are those without the addition of white, gray, or black. These are also known as hues; there are typically twelve of these, although some simplified color wheels show only six.

There are three primary hues: red, blue, and yellow; and three secondary colors: purple (red+blue), green (blue+yellow) and orange (yellow+red). There are also 6 tertiary colors on most color wheels, made of mixes of the primary hues with the secondary colors closest to them. These usually have descriptors such as red-orange, blue-green, yellow-green, etc. Blues and greens are cool colors, while reds and yellows are warm.

Adding black to a pure color gives you a darker shade of that hue. Tints are pure colors that have been diluted with white. They are often pastel; the hue is the same, but lighter. Tints contain no gray. Tones, on the other hand, have been mixed with neutral gray – the hue remains the same, but becomes less vibrant (“toned down”). 

Note: Print media also allows for halftones, but these don’t really have anything to do with adding a color. The halftone process spaces out the colored dots that the artwork is made from, so that the color appears lighter. The color used in halftones is the same in each location; in some places there’s just less of it. This technique is great for spot color labels, and can give you a gradient effect. This label from Austin Scoops uses halftone for its blue gradient.

Color Schemes

The color wheel is a useful tool for deciding what colors you want to use together, whether it’s in your logo, on your walls at home, or in the artwork for your label. There are different ways to combine colors, depending on how many you want to use and what sort of look you’re going for.

Monochrome schemes use one hue, varying the tone, shade, or tint (or appearing to, by using half-tones with spot colors). Complementary schemes use colors from opposite sides of the wheel. There are also triad (three color) and tetrad (four color) schemes.

There are a number of great online resources for selecting color schemes. Try Adobe Color or Paletton and just have some fun!

Contrast Matters

You can make sure your product labels pop – and are legible – with contrast. Contrast is not a difference in color, but a difference in tone (gray). High contrast is best for reading, and can make it easier for color-blind individuals, as well. (About 1 in 12 males and 1 in 200 females worldwide has some form of color-blindness.) It’s good to have a mix of high and low contrast items; eyes tire of high-contrast more quickly.

If you’re concerned about readability, an easy way to tell if your colors contrast with each other enough to stand out is to convert your image to grayscale. If you’re concerned about color-blindness when choosing label colors, you can also check out your artwork on the Coblis colorblind simulator.

label for normal vision
Normal vision
green-blind sample of label
Deuteranopia (green-blind)

I put one of our labels (above) in this simulator so you can see how it looks to a user with deuteranopia. Note that in this case, if the buttons used color rather than text to convey meaning, the contrast between the colors used may not be strong enough to allow a color-blind user to determine which button to press.

When it comes to text, the best contrast pairs are black on yellow or white; yellow or white on black; white on blue (or vice versa); or white on green (or vice versa). Other contrasting light-dark colors are not as readable as any of these combinations.

Know Your Audience

gender differences in color preference
Common most & least favorite colors for men and women

Want your product labels to attract certain customers? Gear their colors and design for the demographic you want. Surveys have shown that, generally speaking, women prefer blues, greens, and purples, while men prefer blues, greens, and black.

Least favorite colors for women are orange, brown, and gray, and most men dislike brown, orange, and purple. These colors still have a place on labels, though; you may just want to make them an accent rather than covering the entire label with them!

Typically, men are more comfortable with “achromatic” colors (grays, black and white) than women are. Women are more likely than men to have a favorite color, and while there don’t seem to be gender differences in shade preferences, women do show a tendency to prefer tints (softer colors) while men prefer the unmixed hues (more intense, bolder colors).

Your customers’ preferences may vary by age, as well. Children tend to prefer primary colors (red, blue, yellow); their tastes change to include black and purple as they grow into young adulthood. The older the individual, the less likely they are to prefer yellows or oranges (this may have to do with the waning ability of the aging eye to view these colors). 

Color Associations

The Global Color Survey (300,000+ respondents to date) has a great deal of information on color associations around the world. Even there, blue is most often listed as a favorite color, while dark yellow is the least favorite.

The fun part about this database is that they can answer specific questions, along the lines of “what colors do Canadian males, ages 25-34, associate with the word ‘powerful’.” This can be a great help if you know your audience, but not which colors to choose to strengthen their identification with your brand persona.

You can take the survey, too!

Color associations are key for choosing label colors
Colors, traits, and common industries

Studies have found that people associate blue with security and trust (and it’s now used in over 75% of major credit card brand logos). Red is associated with speed and passion, black with luxury, brown with inexpensive, purple with dignity and courage (red is a close follower in the courage category). Orange is tops in fun and sunny, followed closely by yellow. If you look at our warning and alarm signs, you’ll also see a high percentage of warm colors (reds, oranges, yellows) represented there.

Pantone’s color of the year for 2020 is Classic Blue, and their write-up touches on the perceived meanings of the color – “Instilling calm, confidence, and connection, this enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation on which to build as we cross the threshold into a new era.”

Color Your Labels!

Inspired to update your labels? There’s no harm in trying pops of color, different shades, or switching from one color scheme to another (say, from complementary to monochrome or analogous). Do a small run (minimum order in our affordable line is 100 labels, the process color label minimum is 250) to test them out. The feedback from your customers could be valuable!

Remember that in addition to choosing label colors, you have options when it comes to your label materials. Foils, metallics, colored, and patterned materials can play a role in your label design as well. We’ll cover those materials in another post.

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