By Fran Johnson
  1. Home
  2. Insights
  3. Article

How to develop secondary colour palettes

Starbucks brand colour is iconic. When asked 156 Americans to draw their logo, the majority selected green as their colour of choice!

Starbucks logo remembered by lots of different people

This is great news for Starbucks, and demonstrates the importance of a strong brand colour.

Starbucks corporate colour on various things


A recognisable primary colour plays a crucial role in how well a brand is remembered. Designers can ensure something ‘feels branded’ with relative ease. However, what happens when new products are launched? When the Christmas range is released? When children join their parents and need to be entertained? This is when a secondary colour palette steps in.

Launch images of Starbucks winter drinks

Image (and the one above) from Starbucks Stories

So, what is a secondary colour palette?

Over time brand colour palettes can feel limiting. A restricted colour palette can make any design work feel corporate, and trying to introduce new messages or products can become trickier. A secondary colour palette is a set of colours chosen to compliment the primary colours, but give the designer more range.

Our previous blog post on colour speaks about why an extended colour palette might be useful. So, we will assume you are on board with the idea, and are here to see how it’s done!

How to design a secondary colour palette?

As designers, when we use the word palette, we are speaking of a range of colours that can work well together. The crucial word is range. Often colours might look quite boring on their own, or too overpowering, but when they sit in a palette with other colours, the resulting affect should feel balanced.

When thinking about colour, we often think of two things. Tone and hue. Let’s have a look at the dictionary definitions:

hue: noun. a colour or shade.

tone: noun. the particular quality of brightness, deepness, or hue of a shade of a colour.

Colour Tone

Often, it is easier to think about tone first. Most successful colour palettes have a wide tonal range, as it allows the designer to add emphasis, atmosphere and help navigate the viewer around the work. In design, you need areas that sink into the background, and other areas that jump into the foreground. I think it’s easier to get your head around tone when you think about images in greyscale. Creating an artwork with impact would be much easier to do with a range of different greys over the entire spectrum, rather than a tiny tonal range.

Sketchbook from Edward Hopper

Image from Charles Ritchie of Edward Hoppers sketchbook

We often convert our colour palettes into greyscale to check the tonal variety – perhaps you could do the same with your current colour palette?

Muted selection of colours for a secondary colour palette
Secondary colour palette converted into greyscale

Colour Hue

Now, let’s talk about selecting hues. You will be wanting to select colours that fit with the brand, and often designers will just ‘know’ what works, and what doesn’t. Years of training, and plenty of experience! But, there are a few methods that help us with the process of selecting colours, that might be useful to share.

Nature has the most incredible colour palettes, and often utilises colours that you wouldn’t think of putting together, but they just work. This is a brilliant place to start. However, before you start googling photographs of stunning sunsets, it is worth thinking about the tone of your brand. A corporate, clean tech company would do better to seek inspirations from peaceful mountain scenes, whereas an urban vibrant company might do better searching out the tropics of nature.

Wild flowers in a field
Vibrant tropical agave leaves
A lake with a red tree over

All images from Adobe Stock

Aurora borealis in the sky

We then colour pick various colours from our source materials, and build swatches in our design programme, illustrator. If you don’t have access to any design software, you could use a web ‘colour picker’ like ColorZilla and copy the hex code into shapes in a word processing document.

Once we have a number of colours we are happy with, it is now time for gradients! Selecting a wider colour palette for gradients is a very useful tool to broaden out your colours. We tend to group the pre-chosen colours together in a natural gradient, and then select additional colours from this spectrum. An easy way to grow your palette from 6 to 28!

Blue gradient to make a secondary colour palette
Purple gradient to make a secondary colour palette

Starting with white, and ending with black, group your similar colours together

Secondary colour palette for StudentCrowd

These selected colours are then recorded down into brand guidelines, so ensure they are used consistently.

So, to recap what to consider when selecting a secondary colour palette for your brand:

  • Think about the tone of voice for your colour palette
  • Use colour in nature when you get stuck
  • Develop palettes that have a wide tonal range
  • Use gradients to extend your palette
Why brand colour palettes need to be more extensive

Every brand needs a workable colour palette for their brand, one that will work for graphs, data visualisations and CTA's.

Fran Johnson - 19/07/2021
The brick wall of brand strategy

Brand strategy is hugely important. It is often the stage of the branding process that ensures a brand has longevity and can be created with growth in mind. However, as designers, the jump between figuring out the brand strategy and creating the visual identity of a brand is a tricky…

Fran Johnson - 27/06/2023
How to develop secondary colour palettes

Over time brand colour palettes can feel limiting. A restricted colour palette can make any design work feel corporate, and trying to introduce new messages or products can become trickier. A secondary colour palette is a set of colours chosen to compliment the primary colours, but give the designer more range.

Fran Johnson - 01/09/2021
Using brand words as testing devices

Establishing brand words is a useful tool to steer project direction, but it is also incredibly useful to then test any project outcomes.

Fran Johnson - 18/09/2023
How to design a logo

Do you want to know the nuts and bolts of designing a logo? From how to generate initial ideas to refining them and establishing a brand.

Fran Johnson - 24/07/2023
Day in the life of …

Once you have your persona, how do you work out how they'll want to be spoken to? The 'day in the life of' exercise is a great way to establish how you want to speak to your target audience.

Fran Johnson - 02/10/2023