Why the colour black matters in branding and advertising.
"Black is powerful enough to be in harmony with all the colours. The master and the slave" - Unknown
If you searched the internet and read through the psychology of colour theory, you'll come across different meanings of the colour black. Some say black evokes sophistication, seriousness, control and independence. Others say black expresses mystery, depression and death. Whatever is the meaning behind the colour, using black in your branding correctly becomes one of the most important colours you will need to know and use effectively.
But first a brief history and context behind the colour black and where it has originated from.
Black was one of the first colours used by artists in Neolithic cave paintings thousands of years ago, using charcoal. And then more vivid black pigments by burning bones or grinding a powder was used to enhance and add further depth to the cave paintings. In the 14th century, black was worn by royalty, the clergy, judges and government officials in much of Europe. It became the colour worn by English romantic poets, businessmen and statesmen in the 19th century, and a high fashion colour in the 20th century. In the Roman Empire, it became the colour of mourning, and over the centuries it was also frequently associated with death, evil, witches and magic.
Famous painters and artists like Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet and Gustave Doré all used black as a dominant colour to symbolise and show how people lived or felt in their paintings. For example, 'Wheat Field with Crows' by Vincent Van Gogh used thick brush strokes of bright rich colours mixed with black crows flying over a cornfield added drama to the mood of one his last painting before he died. Whilst Gustave Doré's earlier illustration engravings, used black to shows how the effects of coal and the industrial revolution had blackened the buildings and air of the great cities of Europe.
Over time, the colour black has become a very important colour in people's lives. Also for artists and how it's being effectively used in branding and advertising.
5 ways to use the colour black in your branding and advertising.
1. Make sure your logo also works in black
Before I start to design a logo identity, which is often a series of doodles in a notebook. I play around with just the colour black on paper or on computer to experiment how the logo idea will look and feel in its rawest form. All logo designs should work in black and white and reproduce at a minimum size. This way, a logo can be tested for legibility and retaining strength. Sometimes a logo identity may contain a lot of intricate details which may get lost if reduced down or is reprinted small. It's often a good idea to tweak a logo in its rawest form and manually adjust the fine details so that you have a couple of versions of the logo to use as and when. The Nike logo identity was simplified in 1995 to just a tick. Which overtime has been retained and recognised throughout the world. The simple tick in the end works on almost any background.
These days, your logo needs to be cleaner and adapt in a responsive way for both online and offline.
Test your current logo identity and see how it reproduces in black and white and at a reduced size. Does it still maintain its strength as well as it did when it was larger and in colour? Also, how does it work online. Social media icons are good way to test your logo identity.
2. Find complimentary colours that work best with black
Black provides both contrast and negative space. Even the amount of black can create depth and drama as well as pull the viewer into its surrounding space. Think of a theatre set, why are all the lights out on the audience and the stage lit up? The colour black or the dark surrounding light allows the viewers eye to be drawn into the story being told. Without being distracted by other colours being projected, either through the lighting or the stage set itself.
Whilst black does have its advantages, it also has its disadvantages. Not all colours of the spectrum go well with the colour black. Sometimes some colours against black can look like they are floating or popping out of the page or screen only to hit your eye in an uncomfortable way.
3. The colour black can work on print but not always online
When it comes to using the colour black for page layouts and online, I often avoid using a flood of solid black backgrounds purely because it's hard to read white or coloured text against the screen.
I have designed brochures in the past, where black background was used in some of the pages and not all. Because black can be a very statement of intent colour, it has to be used sparingly and with meaning. When I worked on the Wagamama account sometime back, using black wasn't so much of a problem. Not only was black the main colour of the brand, majority of the advertising campaign it was on printed material and not online. In print, you can get away with using darker colours. But online, it's not always going to work unless you have contrasting image or bolder headlines to hold the content on the page.
4. How using black and white photography can tell a different story
I am a big fan of black and white photography. And my old-time favourite was Ansel Adams the landscape American photographer. During my university days in art school, I often use to go out and shoot in black and white. I remember my old tutor's words till this day, 'your photos have to tell a story'. And that stuck with me ever since. It's probably the same for colour photography I am sure. But black and white for me had more mystery, depth and drama. Our lives are filled with colour and so it becomes more surprising when I see a captivating black and white image being used on a piece of marketing communication.
When I worked on the John Lewis Partnership account, I came up with an interesting way to use black and white photography along with colour. It was important to bring out the brand colours as well as add a new spin on the current brand photos library. In the advert below, black and white photography created a contrast to the mosaic of coloured images of Waitrose which began to tell the story of a partnership with more meaning.
5. Using black in typography
We all use black text write when we set letters or send emails. It's a standard default. But when black is used in typography in an artistic way it has surprising results. Search the internet and you'll find plenty of examples of how designers have used black typography to add a layer affect over images. To create strong and bold lettering affects, for example embossing or foil blocking on packaging, or making typography the visual twist in an advert.
Whichever way black typography is used, be sure it won't be boring because there are so many ways a designer can play with its letterforms. Below is a typographical treatment I created for Birmingham Council, Youth Workers. The campaign was called 'Bring out the best of them.' Therefore, the idea of using black typography as an overlay in various sizes, type styles and densities was to convey the sense of 'good words' radiating from behind the young person in the advert. Playing with black typography over a darker image coming to light, showed how Youth Workers in Birmingham Council could have a positive influence of turning their lives around.
In summary, the colour black is a very important colour that symbolises both good and bad connotations in design. But if it is used with the right reason to compliment your brand and communications ideas, the colour black becomes a real winner.
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