How to design a color scheme

There are so many articles and courses that focus on color theory (We even did an entire podcast about it), I am not going to focus on the science of picking a color scheme. But I am going to talk about how to get inspiration and break out of your comfort zone when creating a visual palette.

When talking to a client, it’s important to understand the feeling that they want to invoke on their site, but that doesn’t mean every site needs to always have the same color scheme.    A lot of designers tend to get in ruts and find a comfortable palette and play off that.  I am not above this, I was into grey and yellow for a long time!

How DO you create a color scheme?

My favorite way is to take a picture and create the scheme from that.  Nature can be an amazing inspiration, and the colors work together seamlessly.

Adobe’s Kuler is my favorite tool to use when designing a website.  You can upload an image that you like and build your style off that image.

Let’s say a client wants a cool, coastal (but not overly beachy) feel to their site.  Maybe something that’s a little zen, a little hip, but still warm and accessible. I would try to find an image similar to this one I have from Palos Verdes, California and work from this picture.

As you can see, you can select your mood from the left-hand side, whether it’s deep, colorful, bright.  It’s a good starting point for creating the color scheme. From here you can customize the colors, bring them lighter, or darker.

What if your brand isn’t so warm?  What if the feeling you want to invoke is a more industrial feel?  The same tool can help you, too.  For example, I have this image from downtown Austin — it’s a street sign and a building.  From this, you can pull the different blues and it makes for a really stunning color palette.

One of the best places to find images is Pinterest.  I keep a board on just design inspiration, so that I have something to refer back to when I need to.  You can do keyword searches on the exact emotion you are needing and sort through hundreds of images that you can pin and pull from at a later date. Pinterest can be a good place to grab screenshots as well!

Another good resource (and free) is the Creative Commons area on Flikr.  You can find so many images that you can use for your palettes.

I have stopped looking at the articles and trends, and have started focusing on the feeling my client wants to convey and look to the everyday objects around us for inspiration.  Design is supposed to marry art and functionality. Art is ever-evolving and your inspiration can come from the most unlikely places.


Adobe Kuler
Copaso (Alternative to Kuler)

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