Introduction to Color Theory for Designers

Introduction to Color Theory for Designers How To's How Tos Inspiration Inspiration

Introduction to Color Theory for Designers

Color and typography are the two most important elements of design.  Color in design is used to attract attention, add contrast, convey a meaning, trigger an emotion and group related elements.  When used correctly, color is the cherry on top of design.

Fun fact: Color activates the right side of your brain, which is the side responsible for your emotions. This is why choosing the right color for your design project is one of the most important aspects and will influence how the viewer feels.

To help you out with choosing that killer color scheme, we've laid out all our hot tips on color and what you should know.

Learn the Color Wheel

The color wheel is your best friend when it comes to the do's and don'ts of color combinations.  Every color is made up of the primary colors: red, blue and yellow.  From these colors, we have the secondary colors: purple, green and orange. The secondary colors lead to the tertiary colors: yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, red-purple and red-orange.

Once you understand the breakdown of the wheel you'll want to analyze more into complimentary, triadic, split complimentary, and analogous color schemes.

Complimentary is two colors directly across from each other on the wheel.  These colors contrast each other and create a vibrant look. They are used to make something pop and catch the viewer's attention.

Colour Wheel Combination Scheme Design Art

Triadic is three colors that are evenly spaced out on the wheel.  Even with unsaturated hues, this color scheme tends to be vibrant.  Triadic colors schemes work best when one color dominates and the other two are used subtly.

Colour Wheel Combination Scheme Design Art

Split complimentary schemes use one base color and the two colors adjacent to it's complimentary.  Similar to complimentary colors schemes, this color combo has a high contrast although it is slightly more muted than complimentary color schemes.

Colour Wheel Combination Scheme Design Art

Analogous colour schemes are made up of colors that are next to each other on the wheel.  Analogous schemes are great for relaxed and serene designs.  They are best used when one color dominates, the second supports, and the third is used as an accent.

Colour Wheel Combination Scheme Design Art

Learn more about the use of colour in logo design from our logo blog post.

Explore Color Psychology

Colors are sectioned off into two groups – warm and cool.

Cool colors are blues, purples and greens. This group expresses calm, trust and professionalism.

Cool color scheme combination ideas design
Cool bathroom colour palette via Apartment Guide

Warm colors are reds, oranges and yellows.  These colors are associated with passion, energy, comfort and happiness. Each individual color conveys it's own emotion and we've broken it down below for you.

Warm Colour Palette Scheme Design Wheel
Warm living room colour palette via Reader's Digest

Red is known for it's intensity and expresses war, danger, passion, love, confidence and courage.  To sum it up, it is the color that expresses all the most extreme emotions.  Red is easily visible and will draw attention, which is why it's used in stop signs, buttons and traffic lights.

Orange is a combination of energy and happiness. It reminds us of healthy foods and can increase appetite through thoughts of fall and harvest.  Orange relays enthusiasm, happiness, joy, creativity, fascination and success.

Yellow instantly reminds us of the sun.  It is a great color to draw attention although it should be used strategically and minimally.  Yellow draws out feelings of joy, happiness, wisdom and intellectual energy.

Green is easily recognized as the color of nature, which is why it symbolizes growth, fertility, hope and freshness.  In North American, where money is green, it is a symbol of wealth and riches. Green conveys healing, stability, endurance, harmony, safety, life, and well being.

Blue is associated with the sea and sky. It creates a calming effect, which is why it's beneficial for your body and mind. Blue is related to trust, loyalty, wisdom, intelligence, expertise, confidence, stability and depth.

Purple is often connected to royalty and extravagance.  It's used to express wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery, and magic. Purple can be seen as artificial and is rarely seen in nature. 

Understand How Colors Change Based on Their Surrounding

Contrasting colour wheel pop design art
Vibrant Colour Scheme by Kimberley Coole

As size and background of a shape change the color within will change as well. When designing it's important to keep in mind how the colors and shapes are affecting each other.

A thin line and a large rectangle, filled with the same color on a white background, will appear slightly different.  The color within the line will look darker than the rectangle since it's surrounded by more bright white space.

When you pair a tint and shade of the same color with each other, the tint will look lighter and the shade will look darker.  For example if you have created a light green frog, placing it on a dark green background will cause the frog to appear lighter.

Large background colors will effect small areas of color on top. This one is fairly straight forward.  If a yellow circle is placed on a black background it will pop more than a white background since there is more contrast between black and yellow. This is important to understand so you can add focal points to your design.

Adding a darker outline to a shape will enhance the color within the shape while a lighter outline will reduce the strength of the inner color.  This is a handy trick when designing text or a graphic that you wish to pop off the page.

Consider Your Audience

Different colors schemes and combinations will attract different audiences. It is important to understand how color affects each gender, age and culture.

Colour Meanings Different Cultures Emotions Symbolism
Purple Temple in Thailand via Admella on Flickr

It's important to be educated on the cultural significance in different countries, to avoid offending anyone.  For example, purple is the color of mourning in Thailand although in Western culture it represents luxury and wealth.  In Western culture black is the color of mourning and would be poor choice on a poster about celebration.

Blue is considered to be the safest color choice around the world and has many positive associations.  In North America and Europe it is associated with trust and security and emits calm and soothing feelings.  In other countries blue represents healing and evil repellent.  Eastern cultures relate blue to immortality, while in the Ukraine is reflects good health. 

Some other examples of how color varies through culture are:

  • White is the color of mourning in Japan and black is associated with honor.
  • Red is the colour of purity in India, good luck in China, and mourning in South Africa.
  • In Japan yellow represents courage, mourning in Egypt and hope in the West.

You can use your knowledge of color in culture to your advantage, to attract different groups of people to your designs.

Our last tip about color is to use online sources when creating your color scheme.  There are many at your disposal and we've grouped them all in our 101 Essential Online Resources for Graphic Designers post.

How will you incorporate color in to your custom portfolio book?  Whether you go with a subtle and minimalist look or a full cover-full graphic one, we're excited to see what you come up with!



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