design delight 5: colour models

The importance of waves.

Colour is a powerful tool you can use to make your brand more compelling and consistent. But before we dive in to colour choices, let’s touch on the science of colour which will save you much trouble and money down the road.

Colour is light. Light exists as particles that travel in waves.

To simplify: light exists as waves. What determines the specific colour of the light we’re seeing at any given time? The length of the waves it is travelling in.

This length is measured in tiny units called nanometres (nm).

Let’s look at a few examples:

When light travels in wavelengths of 555 nm, we see it as green. When light travels in wavelengths of 400 nm, we see it as purple. When light travels in wavelengths of 700 nm, we see it as red. All the colours that our eyes and brain can see, exist as light traveling in waves that are between 400 nm and 700 nm long

So what happens? 

When your eyes see red, they don’t actually “see” red. Rather, they pick up on light traveling in wavelengths of 700 nm. They then send this info to your brain. Your brain then says

“aha, the code for the colour red!” and then sends an image of red back for your eyes to see.

Why is the science of colour and light so important? Because it determines what kind of colour model you should use for your brand’s deliverables, and knowing this can help you save yourself a lot of time, money and stress.

The two colour models

There are two opposing models of creating colour for your brand’s deliverables. One model adds light to other light to make colours, the other model takes light away.

The additive colour model is known as RGB and it has three base colours: Red, Green and Blue. This colour model mizes these three primary colours to create the infinite amount of in-between colours that we are capable of seeing. It does this by adding light from the primary colours that are being mixed. What is the most important lesson here: 

The RGB colour model is what you use to create all the images and content that will appear on digital screens: TVs, phones, tablets, laptops, PCS, etc. Any and all digital technology uses the additive RGB colour model to display the visible colour spectrum.

The second colour model is the subtractive colour model, also known as the CMYK colour model. Like the RGB model, it’s named after it’s primary colours: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (black).  Instead of mixing colours by adding light to each other, here colours are mixed by subtracting light from each other. This colour model is what you use for all the designs that will end up on printed surfaces like signs, posters, business cards, menus, brochures, etc.


The take away

Why did we take so long to get to the point? Because a more detailed explanation helps you understand the underlying principle, and understanding the underlying principle makes it harder for you to forget the lesson:

Use RGB for digital screens. Use CMYK for print. If you use them for the wrong form of media,. your media will come out looking wonky, and at the very least you’ll have lost your precious time.

Now that you know which colour models to use for which media, in the next post we’ll talk about colour choices for your brand’s colour schemes.