Behind The Design: Color Talks

Inspired by the "Email Idol" session from the EEC 2010 conference, a colleague (a.k.a. Chad White) gave me the idea to explore color use in email. Since I'm a writer and not a designer, I figured it was best to turn to the experts. I asked three designers the same question: What are the top five rules for using color in email? Surprise, surprise. Their answers were all pretty similar. Great minds think alike, right? Here are the compiled highlights:

Rule #1: Don't overdo it. If there are too many colors competing for attention (or too much of one color), the messaging impact can get lost. Mi Addidas strikes the right chord. Apple is also really good at getting impact out of bright colors by placing them within a lot of white space. Keep in mind that the color you see on your screen may not be the same color your subscribers see on their screens. Colors and resolutions change from PCs to Macs, and from monitor to monitor.



Rule #2: Stay within the palette. When using multiple colors, try to choose those with similar tonal saturation, brightness or hue. When working with a brand palette, choose colors that complement a featured image, as CB2 and Veer did. If you're picking up brand colors from your Web site and integrating them into your email, make sure to include the most prominent color. While you want each email to feel unique, you also want to be sure to keep the integrity of the brand and not stray from the overall feel.  

Rule #3: Use color to improve scannability. Adding color is the easiest way to tell people where to go and what to do next. Use it to draw the eye across the page, separate sections and make certain areas POP! Color works really well with buttons (as in this Land of Nod email), body copy links, bullets, icons, or dividing elements, especially in a message with a good deal of copy, like the FILTER newsletter. Keep in mind that images can count as punch of color, too -- as with these Cookie Lovers and CB2 emails.

Rule #4: Be mindful of color implications. In a retail context, red often means "sale" -- but for other types of messaging, it can signify alarm. Similarly, for certain audiences, dark imagery and backgrounds can come across chic and modern, as with this Nike email. On the opposite end, dark imagery and backgrounds can come across as ominous and creepy. Avoid the latter. You'll also want to stay away from extremely saturated and neon colors for fonts or large surface areas. They can strain the eyes. Using white type over a colorful background can be sophisticated, but if coded incorrectly, could turn out to be a big flop. Just think of this mantra as you design: Not too heavy, not too white.

Rule #5: Make sure to keep it balanced. Keep the balance of primary and secondary brand colors intact. For example, if the main color is green and the supporting colors are orange and blue, go heavier on the green and accent with the others. Some brands -- like Holiday Inn -- even give specific ratios for color usage. Colors also help you create a hierarchy of messaging. The boldest colors should go to the primary message, with secondary messages getting pops of complementary colors. Overall, you want to look for colors that work together and don't compete with the big picture.

Thanks to Wacarra Yeomans, Jim Spence and Amy Hamilton from Responsys for their colorful insight.

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