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How color theory can make or break a character design (best tips with examples)

Many marketing agencies rely on the power of animation to communicate a brand story. But imagine this:

what happens if you do not follow the universal principles of color theory in designing a character?

According to numerous marketing surveys, the right choice of color makes up 60 per cent of the success or failure of a product or service. As a result, the right color in any kind of animation will have a direct impact on the revenue and lead generation of your clients.

the effect of a characters color on the brand story

As psychologists put it:

our subconscious mind is adept at making up meanings from different colors. If the colors evoke a sense of dislike, we won’t be happy looking at it.

Likewise, a character will look misplaced and inconceivable if you do not consider color theory psychology throughout the design process.

In this article, we are going to break down everything you need to know about choosing the perfect color palette for your characters. Then, We elaborate on some aspects of choosing a perfect color palette for character design. Finally, to put everything into practice, we have chosen one of our most successful character design to consider as a case study.


How does color communicate brand incentives? (Color theory for designers)

Consider the words “Love” and “Like”. Which one do you think invokes more feeling and drama? If you were to use either of them in your advertising campaigns, which one do you choose? 

The answer might sound too obvious but let’s take a more in-depth look.

Faber Birren, a famous color theorist, wrote in his book Color Theory about the link between color and decision making in humans.

Just like the words “love” and “like” elicit different emotions, colors like red and black makes people feel  certain things.

Now consider the same principle in character design: If the color of your brand characters doesn’t have the power to inspire action, it’s like you haven’t created them in the first place. Therefore, as a brand, you want to encourage a secure emotional connection with your customers and persuade them into buying or using your products. 

The following picture is one of the most viral marketing campaigns on social media. Huawei started this campaign to promote its P-series smartphones for maximum visibility. It uses primary colors like pink and red to communicate the youthfulness and femininity of the target audience. 

how color theory applies to character design psychology

Now that you know more about the impact of color on human psychology Let’s see how color palettes can make or break a character design. 


How do you choose a color palette for your character? (4 proven and tested methods)

Let’s go step by step and see what process we should go through when choosing a color scheme for your characters.

Pick a robust color scheme as a foundation for your character

Foundation colors, as the name suggests, are the building blocks of a good character. The first thing you should consider is choosing the colors within the same color gamut as your foundation colors. Some of the best foundation colors for 3d animation are:

  • Natural tone colors: We call them earth colors because they are based on the natural elements of our environment. Basically, any color containing some brown – the color of ground or soil, green – the color of leaves and trees, blue, the color of the sky as well as the red sun are considered Earth tone colors.
  • Jewel tone colors: the rich and highly saturated hues colors from well-known gems like sapphire blue, ruby red, amethyst purple, citrine yellow, and emerald green are known to be jewel-tone colors.

  • Pastel tones: They are regarded as Pastels because of  their pale colors. They have high value and low saturation and are the opposite of jewel-tone colors because of their lower color density. This type of color is very common in 2d animation design.
  • Warm or cool tones: Undertone colors are broken down into three categories; warm, cool and neutral. Warm undertones tend to lean towards peachy, yellow or golden tones; cool colors, on the other hand, signify hints of pink, red or blue; while neutral is a mixture of these colors.

character design color theory

Choosing each of these color tones as the foundation for your characters have different outcomes though. It all depends on the value, story and the message your brand is trying to convey.

If you want to know more about how color psychology can impact the effect of animation , our psychology of character design article has shed some light on this topic.


4 Best tips on using color theory in character design

It’s not enough to create a character with vibrant and eye-catching colors, What’s more important is how you combine the different colors in a way that creates an ever-lasting impact on your clients. Here, we are going to give four tips on how to maximize the success of your marketing campaigns through the power of color theory:

1. Select an accent color that complements the foundation color

The first thing you should do is to pick an accent color that emphasizes your foundation color. Accent colors usually make the primary colors more noticeable. In character design, this color is mostly used to create accessories like anklets, belts, bags, and bracelets.

2. Choose your metal colors accordingly.

Metal color is known to be a color that resembles a polished metal. The visual annotation is usually related to metals, especially its metallic shine. 

Gold, silver, bronze, iron are some of the most used metal colors in character animation. You can also add cohesion to your character costume and then matching your jewel-tone colors metal accents to it.

3. Pick a color palette based on the color wheel

If you look at blockbuster Hollywood movies, there’s usually a combination of teal and orange in the background that makes the atmosphere of the movie so American! That’s because teal blue is opposite of orange on the color wheel, and the right warm oranges combined with teal add vibrancy to the space. 

When picking a palette, use a color wheel to choose the colors that go well together. Referring to a color wheel will significantly improve the appearance of the characters and thus making it more appealing to the human eye.

how to use a color wheel for character design

4. Choose black color wisely.

The most overused color in character design is black. Although it seems convincing to pick black as your foundation color for a character, It usually does not convey the brand story or marketing campaign message effectively.

Besides, it’s too cliche and does nothing to make you stand out from the competitive market of animation commercials. It’s better to use black as an accent color or a color to link a few other colors together.

  • Important note: If you want to use black as a primary color, consider using a dark tone palette that includes grays, dark blues, and deep reds instead. It will give you a much better definition and make a complete look.


How many colors should a character have?

When it comes to choosing a color scheme for a character, it’s common to get a little too excessive in using different colors. According to Cleveland institute of art, a character should have three primary colors, but you can go beyond this number only if you know the reason behind picking more colors.

 Try this to see if you have used too many colors:

Do you feel confused and dizzy when you look at your character?

If the answer is yes, It might be wise to lower the number of colors (Unless, of course, there’s a reason for complexity). As a rule of thumb, best animation studios usually try to limit the colors down to three or four to keep it simple and effective.

Let’s compare the following pictures:

The picture on the left uses a wide variety of colors which makes the characters dull and boring. On the right side though, the colors are much more balanced and they are used in harmony with the environment which makes the characters much more appealing.

bad color palette for character design

What are the best three color combinations in character animation? 

To give you some ideas of a good and bad color combination, take a look at the following three-color combinations that have proved to be working:

  • Turquoise, Dark Blue, Beige: Innovative and assertive like Blue Fairy and Snow White
  • Yellow, Blue, Red: groovy and brilliant like Superman
  • Beige, Brown, Dark Brown: friendly and alive more used in anime movies
  • Green, Blue, Yellow: juvenile and intelligent …


Disney character colors, should we copy or steal?

In the character design industry, a lot of designers and agencies go for Disney characters color palettes as a role model for better recognition. Does this mean we should create our characters based on Disney only? Certainly not, What matters the most is that you take advantage of the versatility of this color palette and then add something unique to the color palette that makes it stand out.

Below is a list of most well known Disney characters along with their main color palette:

  • SNOW WHITE: strong and contrasting colors: red, yellow and blue.
  • CINDERELLA: soft and dusty colors: blue, pink, white
  • ELSA: cold and monochromatic: shades of blue, green and bright purple
  • MULAN: vibrant colors: pink, blue, green

We highly suggest that you try to understand the reason behind every color you choose for your color palette. If you have any idea or critique regarding this, we are more than happy to hear your thoughts on this.

Disney characters color palette

Don’t try to copy Disney color palette, Instead, steal the idea behind each character and try to come up with your own style!


How does Dream Farm implement color theory in character design? [a short case study]

If you take a look at our characters in the commercial animation section of our website, you’ll realize that our main focus is to design well-colored characters that aspire to make a deep connection with the client.

This character has been designed based on the Razi Insurance brand mascot to convey the following traits:
. Agile
. Flexible
. Modern
. Reliable
. Potent

Dream Farms studio character design examples

We tried hundreds of different color palettes to see which one conveys the personality type we have chosen for the brand character. Finally we have come up with the following:

  • White: White color triggers reliability, virtue and health which are regarded as the main characteristics of an insurance company.
  • Dark Blue — Dark blue stands for professionalism, security and formality which act as the brand expertise
  • Accent colors like dark brown and black show the agility and flexibility of the character


Final Thoughts

Whether you’re a marketing agency that aspire to influence the clients or a brand that is thinking of designing an exclusive mascot, choosing a well-balanced color palette can play a huge role in conveying the most important messages. This article will help you make sense of an appropriate color palette for the characters and some of the best tips and tricks that can turn the brand image upside down.



Where to go from here? Character design color palette inspirations

Now that you know everything about color theory in designing a character, it’s time to dip your toes into the water start creating. For that, you’re going to need find some inspiration first. Check out Pinterest to see all the color palettes that have been used widely so that you’re well on your way on creating your own unique and awesome colors.

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2 months ago

Such an informative article for an important subject in character design. Keep up the good job 😊

Abdelrahim Ahmed TD
Abdelrahim Ahmed TD
2 months ago

Great to see this process great stuff, keep it up

Michael Olasanya
Michael Olasanya
2 months ago

This is a lovely piece and very informative. Thanks a lot.

Mari Uyehara
Mari Uyehara
2 months ago

Thx for the informative article. Personally I don’t think choosing Disney color palette will do any good to the character design as it ruins the genuine sense of the character personality

Toni Etruria
Toni Etruria
2 months ago
Reply to  Mari Uyehara

Yes i do agree with you Mari. However I would say going for Disney color palette can help your characters to get more recognition since they are familiar to the viewers eye.

2 months ago

it was really helpful appreciate it thx alot

Arash Naghdi
Arash Naghdi
2 months ago
Reply to  Akash

Thank you very much Akash. Thrilled to hear that !

Mia Delurus
Mia Delurus
1 month ago

We know for a fact that color plays an important role in character design but what’s even more important is that the use of color complements brand incentives. Thank you very much for shining some light on this important and usually underestimated topic.

1 month ago

Great content for character design color principles. You can also check out Pinterest to get some idea about the implementation of these principles

24 days ago


24 days ago

i like it 😀

24 days ago

It was really Helpful to help us, we appreciate 😀

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