Color theory, which saw significant exploration and evolution in the 20th Century, is a fascinating science and art that allows designers to create visually stunning and harmonious color combinations.

Understanding the principles and techniques of artistic color theory can greatly enhance a designer's ability to communicate effectively and create powerful visual experiences. Representational painting, for example, leaned on these principles to capture the likeness and mood of subjects.

By understanding the basics of color theory and exploring different color combinations, designers can effectively convey their intended message, create visually appealing designs, and evoke the desired emotional response from their audience.

  • Why You Should Care About Color Theory
  • Applying Colour Theory In Design
  • Understanding The Color Wheel
  • Additive & Subtractive Color Process
  • What Are The Seven Types Of Color Schemes?
  • How To Choose A Color Scheme
  • How To Use Color Palettes
  • Color Tools
  • But Really, Why Should You Care About Color Theory?
  • Why You Should Care About Color Theory

    Did you know that color choices can have a significant impact on consumer perception?

    You'll deeply resonate with your audience if you mix these three aspects together:

    • Science
    • Psychology
    • And emotion

    By leveraging color psychology, designers can understand how different colors can evoke specific emotions and influence consumer behaviors. When designers use the guidelines for color combination correctly, they ensure their colors not only match well but also convey their message clearly.

    Applying Colour Theory In Design

    In branding, color theory plays a big role in establishing a company's identity and effectively communicating its values. Different colors convey different messages, impacting how consumers perceive a brand's personality and positioning.

    Basic color schemes, such as an achromatic color scheme, for instance, can give brands a distinct look and feel.

    Similarly, in marketing and sales, color choices can influence purchasing decisions, as specific colors can stimulate desire, trust, or confidence in a product or service. Paint colors and cooler colors can evoke specific emotions in customers, while categories of color theory can provide a framework for making these selections.

    Basic colors play a fundamental role in this process. So, if you want to create designs that truly resonate with people, color theory is an aspect you should care about.

    By carefully considering color choices and their effects, designers can connect with their audience on a deeper level, leading to increased brand recognition, customer engagement, and sales. 

    Understanding The Color Wheel

    The color wheel is a fundamental tool in understanding artistic color theory, the bias of color, and how colors interact with each other. It is a circular representation of colors, organized in a logical structure that helps designers and artists choose harmonious color combinations.

    The color wheel is divided into three main categories: primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. By understanding the relationships between these colors on the color wheel, designers can create visually balanced and appealing color schemes.

    Whether it's for print or digital media, the color wheel provides a reference point for selecting colors that work well together and create the desired visual impact.

    1. What Are Primary Colors?

    Primary colors are the foundational colors upon which all other shades are based. They are the colors that cannot be made by mixing any other colors together. In traditional color theory, the primary colors are represented as red, blue, and yellow. These colors are often used in art and design as a starting point for creating a wide range of hues and tones.

    2. What Are Secondary Colors?

    Secondary colors are the colors that are formed by combining two primary colors. When these primary colors are mixed together, they create secondary colors. The three traditional secondary colors are orange, purple, and green. By combining secondary colors with primary colors and other secondary colors, you can create a wide range of color palettes and achieve different visual effects.

    3. What Are Tertiary Colors?

    Tertiary colors are an important aspect of color theory as they are created by mixing a primary color with a secondary color that is adjacent to it on the color wheel. This allows for the creation of six unique tertiary colors: red-purple (magenta), red-orange (vermillion), blue-purple (violet), blue-green (teal), yellow-orange (amber), and yellow-green (chartreuse).

    Additive & Subtractive Color Process

    1. CMYK

    CMYK, which stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black), is a subtractive color process used primarily in the field of graphic design and printing.

    In the CMYK color model, colors are created by subtracting light waves. Each color pigment absorbs certain wavelengths of light, resulting in the color families we perceive. Cyan absorbs red light, magenta absorbs green light, and yellow absorbs blue light. We refer to this as the subtractive color process. When combined at full intensity, these three colors theoretically create black, but in practice, a fourth color, key (black), is added to produce a deeper and richer black tone.

    2. RGB

    RGB is an important concept in color theory, particularly in the context of electronic displays and web design.

    RGB stands for red, green, and blue, which are the primary colors used in the additive color mixing model. Unlike the subtractive color process used in printing (CMYK), which starts with a white background and subtracts colors to create desired hues, the additive color model starts with black and adds light to create colors.

    In RGB, varying intensities of red, green, and blue light are combined to create a wider range of colors. By blending red, green, and blue light at different levels, secondary and tertiary colors are formed. For example, equal parts of red and green light result in yellow, while a combination of red and blue light produces magenta.

    What Are The Seven Types Of Color Schemes?

    Color schemes are an essential aspect of colour mixtures for visual design and can greatly impact the overall look and feel of a composition. There are seven main types of color schemes used in art and design, each with its own unique characteristics and effects.

    These color schemes serve as guidelines for combining colors in a harmonious and visually pleasing way. 
    Photo by Helena Lopes / Unsplash

    1. Monochromatic

    The monochromatic color scheme is a popular choice in design projects that involves using different shades, tones, and tints of a single base color. This color scheme offers a cohesive colour harmony, as it relies on variations of a single color rather than introducing contrasting or complementary colors.

    One of the key advantages of the monochromatic color scheme is its versatility. It can be easily applied to various design projects, such as graphic design, interior design, fashion, and more. By using different shades, tones, and tints of the same base color, designers can create depth and visual interest within a cohesive color palette.

    2. Analogous

    Analogous color schemes are another popular choice when it comes to color theory and design. This type of color scheme involves using adjacent colors on the color wheel. By selecting colors that are harmonious and closely related, designers can create a cohesive and visually pleasing palette.

    When using an analogous color scheme, it's important to consider the color temperatures of the selected colors. For example, warm pigments on the color wheel, such as red, orange, and yellow, can create a vibrant and energetic feel. On the other hand, cool pigments, such as blue, green, and purple, can evoke a sense of calm and tranquility.

    3. Complementary

    Complementary colors are pairs of dominant colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel. They have a high contrast and, when used together, create a vibrant and dynamic effect.

    When choosing complementary colors, it's important to consider the overall mood and message of the design. For a more energetic and bold feel, vibrant warm pigments can be used, while muted or desaturated cool pigments can create a calming and sophisticated atmosphere.

    4. Split Complementary

    In a split complementary color scheme, instead of using just one color and its complement, two adjacent colors are chosen. This creates a more nuanced and balanced color palette compared to a traditional complementary color scheme.

    Finding the right balance between colors in a split complementary scheme can be a challenge. It requires experimentation and a keen eye for color combinations that work well together. The dominant color still takes center stage, while the two adjacent colors provide a complementary and contrasting backdrop.

    5. Triadic

    A triadic color scheme is created by selecting three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. These colors form an equilateral triangle and offer a high level of contrast while retaining the same tone.

    Triadic color schemes are particularly effective in creating visual impact in graphic design, illustrations, and branding. They provide a sense of balance and energy, making them suitable for both playful and professional design projects.

    6. Square

    The square color scheme is a visually pleasing and balanced color combination that utilizes four evenly-spaced colors on the color wheel. This arrangement creates a square or diamond shape when connecting the colors.

    This color scheme is particularly suitable for web designs as it offers a wide range of colors to work with, allowing for a vibrant and dynamic website. When starting to create a square color scheme, it is recommended to begin with a favorite color and then select the other three colors based on its arrangement on the color wheel.

    7. Rectangle

    The rectangle color scheme is similar to the square color scheme in that it also utilizes four colors. However, it takes a more subtle approach to color selection, offering a harmonious balance between bold and muted shades. This scheme provides a contrast that allows the bolder colors to stand out while maintaining an overall cohesive and pleasing aesthetic.

    To create a rectangle color scheme, you start by selecting two adjacent colors on the color wheel. These will serve as the dominant and secondary colors, providing a foundation for the design. Then, you choose two additional colors that are located on the color wheel opposite to each other. These will act as the accent colors, adding visual interest and complementing the dominant shades.

    How To Choose A Color Scheme

    There are some great guidelines for color combinations, starting with picking colors that work with what you're trying to achieve, who you're talking to, and the look you're going for. Begin with color research and application to ensure each option creates a different feel.

    Picking the right colors will make your design pop and get your message across clearly.
    Woman sitting at a desk in front of coding computer screen
    Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

    1. Leverage Natural Inspiration

    When selecting colors for design, nature provides invaluable inspiration. Its vast spectrum serves as a reference for harmonious schemes. The effects of time are evident in nature's hues, evolving from dawn to dusk and across seasons, where mixtures of light is always common.

    Perceptual factors influence how we interpret these colors, with every individual perceiving shades based on their unique experiences. Temporal factors, like time of day or season, also impact the colors nature displays and our reactions to them. Using nature's colors, we see its natural beauty and balance. The warm pigments of a sunset might look different to people because of individual differences. Whether it's the cool pigments and shades of a forest or the bright colors of flowers, nature has a lot of beautiful options to pick from.

    2. Set A Mood For Your Color Scheme

    By carefully selecting colors that align with your desired emotions and paying attention to negative space, you can effectively set the mood for your color scheme. It's important to consider the color appearance, color matters and the color effects when choosing your palette. Experiment and find the combinations that resonate with your intended message, making sure you understand the color range available. Knowledge of color systems can be beneficial in ensuring the shades used are consistent and harmonious. Moreover, referring to studies from color research and application can provide insight into how different shades affect viewers.

    For instance, if you want to convey passion and energy, vibrant colors like red or bright yellow can be highly effective. These colors, given their associations of colors, can create a sense of excitement and enthusiasm. But also be aware of the bias of colors, as cultural and personal perceptions can vary. On the other hand, if you're aiming for a peaceful and tranquil mood, lighter blues and greens are great choices. These colors are often associated with calmness and serenity.

    3. Consider Color Context

    Color context refers to how the perception of a color can be influenced by its surroundings. The context in which a color is used, such as the other colors it is paired with or the background against which it is placed, can greatly impact how it is perceived by the viewer.

    When choosing colors for graphic designs, it is crucial to consider color context and how different background colors can create different effects on the perception of a color. For instance, if you want a bold and attention-grabbing design, pairing a vibrant color with a contrasting background can help achieve that effect. Alternatively, if you prefer a more harmonious and balanced design, choosing colors with similar tones or hues for both the object and background can create a cohesive and visually pleasing composition.

    4. Refer To Your Color Wheel

    Referencing the color wheel helps in understanding color relationships and choosing harmonious color schemes for your designs. The color wheel is a useful tool for understanding and choosing color combinations. It consists of twelve hues arranged in a circular format. To refer to the color wheel, imagine a clock face: red is at 12 o'clock, yellow at 4 o'clock, green at 8 o'clock, and blue at 12 o'clock again. The color wheel allows you to easily identify primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

    To choose a color scheme using the color wheel, consider the five types: monochromatic, analogous, complementary, triadic, and tetradic. For example, if you want a monochromatic scheme, select one hue and use different shades, tints, and tones of that color. An analogous scheme involves selecting two or three colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors are opposites on the wheel, such as blue and orange. Triadic schemes involve selecting three colors that form an equilateral triangle on the wheel, such as blue, red, and yellow. Lastly, tetradic schemes combine four colors arranged in two complementary pairs.

    5. Draft Multiple Designs

    When designing a website, it's essential to experiment with different color schemes to find the one that best represents your brand and resonates with your audience. One way to achieve this is by drafting multiple designs and applying different color schemes to each one.

    Start by creating a few design drafts, each with a distinct color scheme. Consider using a monochromatic scheme, where different shades of the same hue are employed, or an analogous scheme, where two or three colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel are utilized. You can also try out complementary or triadic schemes for a contrasting or vibrant effect.

    How To Use Color Palettes

    Color palettes play a crucial role in design, allowing you to create visually stunning compositions that evoke specific emotions and convey your intended message.

    By utilizing color palettes effectively, you can create designs that engage and captivate your audience.
    Photo by Anna Kolosyuk / Unsplash

    1. Work In Grayscale

    Working in grayscale is an important first step in design as it allows designers to focus on the contrast of elements before adding color. By removing color distractions, designers can ensure that the visual hierarchy and communication are effective even in monochromatic schemes. Grayscale also plays a crucial role in ensuring accessibility for visually impaired individuals by providing a clear distinction between different elements.

    Gray, being a neutral color, is typically considered cool and acts as a great substitute for white or black. Its versatility allows it to be used for backgrounds, typography, and even as an accent color. Gray backgrounds, in particular, are commonly used in design to create a clean and modern look. When paired with bold and vibrant colors, gray can enhance the visual impact and create a harmonious balance.

    2. Use The 60-30-10 Rule

    The 60-30-10 rule is a popular guideline used in design to create a harmonious and balanced color scheme. This rule involves allocating color proportions in a design by using a primary or main color for 60% of the space, secondary colors for 30%, and accent colors for the remaining 10%.

    The primary color chosen sets the foundation for the overall design and occupies the largest portion of the layout. It provides a sense of stability and helps establish the visual hierarchy. Secondary colors complement the primary color and add variety to the design. These colors should be used to support and enhance the primary color without overpowering it. Accent colors, on the other hand, are used sparingly to bring attention to specific elements or areas.

    3. Experiment With Your Palette

    Once you have established your primary color, secondary colors, and accent colors, it's time to step outside of your comfort zone and experiment with your palette. This is where you can truly unleash your creativity and push the boundaries of color theory.

    Experimenting with your palette also involves playing with color temperatures. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow create a sense of energy and warmth, while cool colors like blue, green, and purple evoke a sense of calm and tranquility. By strategically incorporating both warm and cool colors into your design, you can create a dynamic and visually interesting composition.

    Color Tools

    When it comes to working with color, having the right tools at your disposal can make all the difference in creating visually appealing designs.

    High-quality color picker tools can help you identify and select complementary or contrasting shades that work beautifully together.
    Photo by Elena Rouame / Unsplash

    1. Adobe Color

    With Adobe Color, users can build their own color schemes or explore hundreds of pre-made schemes to find the perfect combination. Once you have found your desired colors, you can simply copy and paste the HEX or RGB codes into your preferred design program. This seamless integration allows for easy incorporation of your chosen color scheme into your projects.

    Adobe Color is a versatile color tool that provides designers with a wide range of color schemes to choose from. Its ability to generate HEX or RGB codes and save color themes makes it a valuable asset for any designer. Explore Adobe Color and enhance your design process with harmonious and visually appealing color combinations.

    2. Illustrator Color Guide

    Adobe Illustrator's Color Guide feature is an invaluable tool for creating harmonious and visually pleasing color schemes. To use the Color Guide, simply select a base color that you want to work with. This can be any color in your design or one that you choose from the color picker.

    Once you've selected your base color, the Color Guide will automatically generate a color scheme based on that color. The generated scheme will include complementary, analogous, and other related colors that work well together. The best part is that when you switch the main color, all the corresponding colors in the color scheme will automatically update, giving you endless options to explore.

    3. Preset Color Guides

    PowerPoint offers a range of preset color guides that designers can utilize to find inspiration for their designs. These color scheme presets provide a convenient starting point for creating visually appealing and harmonious presentations.

    To locate the preset color themes in PowerPoint, navigate to the "Design" tab at the top of the application window. Under the "Variants" section, you will find the "Colors" dropdown menu. Clicking on this menu will display various preset color themes that you can choose from.

    But Really, Why Should You Care About Color Theory?

    For anyone selling a product or promoting a brand, picking the right colors is super important. This is because colors can affect how people think and feel about a product or brand.

    Color theory plays a big role in business.

    It provides the knowledge and tools to select colors that align with a brand's message and desired customer reaction. By leveraging the principles of color theory, businesses can create more effective marketing materials, product packaging, and overall brand identity.

    Understanding color theory can help make your business more successful.