Using Shades of Gray in Desktop Publishing

Utilizing this Elegant Neutral in Design

Black and gray paint under water
Getty Images/Don Farrall

Gray is a neutral, balanced color. It is a cool, conservative color that seldom evokes strong emotion although it can be seen as a cloudy or moody color.

Shades of Gray

Whether you spell it gray or grey, these words are synonymous with or represent various shades of the color gray: ash, ashen, charcoal, dove gray, gunmetal, iron gray, lead, mousy, oyster, Payne's gray, pearl, powder grey, sere, silver, slate, taupe. Gray colors range from almost black to almost white and sometimes carry a hint of blue or brown. Gray and silver are sometimes used interchangeable although silver has a shinier, more metallic sheen.

Nature and Culture of Gray

The lighter side of black, the color gray is a cool color seen in storm clouds and some metals. Like black, gray is used as a color of mourning as well as a color of formality. Along with blue suits, gray suits are part of the uniform of the corporate world. Dark, charcoal gray carries with it some of the strength and mystery of black. It is a sophisticated color without much of the negative attributes of black. Lighter grays are similar to white. Gray tuxedos are common for men at weddings. Awareness ribbons that use shades of gray include: 

  • Various diseases and conditions such as Asthma, Brain Cancer, Brain Disorders, COPD, Hearing Impairment, Lung Cancer
  • March of Dimes (light gray)
  • Disabled Persons (light gray)

It is used widely in other design fields such as in Feng Shui.

Using Gray in Design

All shades of gray can be good, neutral background colors. Use lighter gray colors in place of white and darker gray in place of black. Taupe, a grayish brown neutral is a conservative, slightly earthy, warm shade of gray. Use grayscale images to evoke a feeling of nostalgia or history.

Use With Complementary Colors and Color Palettes

Light grays with pastel shades of pink, blue, lavender, and green have a feminine quality -- darken those colors for a more masculine feel. Gray with hot pink can lend a little bit of a retro feel. You can cool a warm palette by adding gray to rich reds or golden yellows.

More background on color palettes featuring gray: 

  • Color palettes can feature shades of gray, including very bluish grays, combined with yellow, blue, orange, and teal.
  • ColorCombos has a large selection of gray color schemes. Click on an image you like to get the hex, RGB, CMYK, and HSV values for each color in the palette.
  • Also from ColorCombos, there are color schemes that go with the color shuttle gray, a nice medium shade.
  • Creative Color Schemes features several muted color palettes centered on gray tones. "This Graytone is the collection of grayish colors including warm grays and cool grays that are sleek and practical." These are muted grays that pop when placed on a black background.

Language Around the Color Gray

Familiar phrases can help a designer see how their color of choice might be perceived by others, both the positive and negative aspects.

"Good" Gray

  • Gray matter - brains, intellect
  • Gray power - having to do with the elderly or senior citizens

"Bad" Gray

  • Gray - dull, dingy, dirty
  • Gray page or gray text - in desktop publishing, a text-heavy page with little contrast or white space
  • Gray-hair - old person (not necessarily derogatory)
  • Gray water - dirty water such as water drained from a bathtub or kitchen sink.