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“It’s as if the camera was murdered, and chalk was drawn around its body. Murdered at sundown.” That’s how The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson described the drastic change in Instagram’s logo as it debuted in May 2016. She wasn’t the only one to lambast one of the most recognizable logos in the world. Others called it a “travesty” and “gross.” The consensus clearly was that the new neon background swirl of sunset colors wasn’t going to fly in the design world. But, boy, has it flown.

Now you see neon everywhere, especially in logos (cue the “Stranger Things” intro). For you, the designer looking to capitalize on this trend in business, prepare to enter a new kind of classroom — and bring your sunglasses. There isn’t exactly a textbook on “Neon 101,” so we sat down with a group of respected designers who use neon every day. Here’s how they maximize the use of neon in their business world designs.

James White: Be Creative, But Get It Right

Neon design doesn’t necessarily follow traditional design rules. This leaves your creative canvas refreshingly empty. But you do need the right tools and knowledge before you can explore the full potential of neon gradients.

James White, owner of Nova Scotia-based Signalnoise Studios, is a child of the 80s. His resume in neon design extends to companies such as Universal Music, Google, and Nike. He’s ecstatic that neon is trending, and offers a few pieces of advice for designers getting started.

Shock and Awe

“When you use a loud, fluorescent color palette, you can’t use that for your entire piece,” says James. “Let’s say I’m designing a poster. I can’t have everything grabbing your attention all at once. That doesn’t work. A shock of color should be used on the one element you want to draw attention to. Think of it like a bull’s-eye.”

Your attention-grabbing element should come into focus with neon. The basic background should be dark. James explains how he educates clients when there is a design request for a neon element on a white background: “Hot pink on a white t-shirt doesn’t have the attention-grabbing mechanics that you really want neon to elicit. The white doesn’t provide enough contrast. Hot pink on a black background, however, really pops.”

James White’s signature designs take full advantage of neon gradients and colors. Adding dark backgrounds and analog elements like brush strokes gives neon projects, like this logo for Ubisoft’s new video game “Trials of the Blood Dragon,” depth and realism.

Gradients Are Cool

While others were losing it — grabbing pitchforks to protest Instagram’s new branding — James was heralding the company’s application of gradients, because gradients are cool.

“I think the use of gradient in neon color is great,” says James. “I love these bright gradient colors, and I think they can be used a lot. They should be used even more in branding.” A neon gradient makes a statement that is hard to match with other design elements. Gradients are memorable and unique, exactly what you want when designing for a brand.

So, how to get started? Become an expert by using gradients in Adobe Illustrator. Be courageous and innovative: Experiment with shifting colors.

A Brush of Analog

  1. So you’re tasked with completing a neon design that doesn’t look computer-generated. Accomplish that with an analog element like a brush stroke. It makes designs look hand drawn. James uses analog elements frequently in his designs to give them a more human feeling.

“I grew up drawing, so I want my work to feel like it was made by a person and not an evil super computer,” says James. “When you are playing with neon color, especially on a screen, there’s a certain tone of neon that needs to be backlit. It needs to be synthetic in order to really jump off the screen. By adding an analog touch to it, whether that’s from some noise over the top or from brush strokes, it will make the design more appealing, more approachable, and more human.”

Gabriela Rosa: Readability and Aesthetics

Not only does it seize attention, but the bright colors of neon also elicit feelings of joy and happiness. That’s the case for Gabriela Rosa, a trending designer from Rio de Janeiro. She focuses her design efforts on neon in 3D — another great way to help brands really pop. Her advice to new neon designers is simple: Focus on readability and aesthetics.

Readability Is Key

For neon to work, you have to start with readability. That’s a basic for every design. The focus is message clarity. And because of neon’s exaggerated tones and brightness, readability becomes an absolute must.

“The biggest challenge for this type of project is certainly the readability of the items that make up the layout,” says Rosa. “It is very difficult to combine these types of colors, so care must be taken to ensure that the design is harmonious, aesthetically pleasing, and does not distract the reader’s eyes or hamper their ability to understand the material.”

Float your neon designs by several sets of eyes. Ask people the key question: “What’s the message you’re getting?” This is the ideal way to gauge the readability of your project. If the answers miss the mark, that means you’ve lost readability. When color is distracting, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Use a different tone or use fewer neon colors side-by-side.

Gabriela Rosa celebrated Instagram’s new neon logo with a 3D neon design of her own, showing you can use neon color and still maintain readability.

Colored Contrast and Production Medium

Contrast, like any other design project, is essential to your audience’s ability to decipher important information.

“Colors need to be vibrant and contrast with each other. That’s how audiences understand the message you are delivering,” says Gabriela. “So be mindful of the combinations you choose.”

Gabriela recommends you keep in mind the final production medium for your design as well. Will your design be featured in print, digital, or both? Some neon tones are more difficult to accurately print than others. Do research about your business’ printing capabilities before you commit yourself to a specific color.

Natalia Dalbem: Controlling Tone

Natalia Dalbem began as a fashion designer and eventually migrated to graphic design. She is currently a freelance designer helping clients dress their brands in vibrant color.

Limit Tone Fighting

Natalia loves working with neon. For her, neon gradients live in the tiny boundary between the outdated and the radically avant-garde. Still, she acknowledges that finding the right neon tones to pair together can be a difficult task. “Sometimes, neon colors seem to fight against each other,” says Natalia.

Her solution is to take a regular color palette and, “Transform one or two colors from that palette to neon shades. Then, slightly adjust the other colors, making them brighter or paler to create harmony.”

By being selective with the tone of neon colors in her designs, Natalia Dalbem creates visual harmony while enhancing the eye-catching boldness her clients want.

Designing with neon can be its own reward for a designer. It’s the opportunity to experiment with gradients and brilliant splashes of color, opening the door to uncharted design territory. And neon is great for businesses too.

Whether your vibe is retro or cutting edge, if you are looking for something to separate your brand from competitors, neon may just be the perfect fit. Start creating neon designs with Adobe Creative Cloud today.


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