- Nov 19, 2018
Remember back to your early school days, when having a 64-count box of Crayola crayons to choose from was the ultimate in creative freedom?
Well, as a designer in the digital era, you certainly don’t have to stick to the colors available from paints, inks, or other pigments, though there’s a lot we can learn from fine art’s approach to color. In fact, the human eye can see millions of different hues — but sometimes, choosing even just two or three to use from those millions can seem like a daunting task.
That’s because choosing colors for a design is both highly subjective and, at times, highly scientific. So where does that leave designers who just want a color palette that looks nice or makes a client happy? Like it or not, the most effective color choices go beyond just personal preference — because colors have an extraordinary ability to influence mood, emotions, and perceptions; take on cultural and personal meaning; and attract attention, both consciously and subconsciously.
For designers and marketers, the challenge is in balancing these complex roles that color plays to create an attractive, effective design. That’s where a basic understanding of color theory can come in handy. Traditional color theory can help you understand which colors might work well together (or not) and what kind of effect different combinations will create within your design.
The Basics: Understanding Color
The Color Wheel
You’ve likely seen it in a school art class, or at least are familiar with its stripped-down form: the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. We’ll be dealing with the traditional color wheel of 12 colors, often used by painters and other artists. It’s an easy visual way of understanding colors’ relationships with each other.
The color wheel is all about mixing colors. Mix the primary or base colors red, yellow, and blue, and you get the secondary colors on the color wheel: orange, green, and violet. Mix those with a primary color, and you get the third level of the color wheel, tertiary colors. Those include red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet. The primary and secondary colors (with the addition of indigo) are also part of the visible spectrum of light, or the “colors of the rainbow.” You many have memorized the acronym “Roy. G. Biv” as a kid to remember these colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
This way of understanding color is known as an subtractive model, which involves mixing colored pigments like paints or inks — both the traditional color wheel and the CMYK color system that printing equipment uses fall into this category. That’s opposed to the additive model, which involves mixing colored light (like the colors you see on your computer screen or TV) and uses a different set of primary colors: red, green, and blue, often abbreviated RGB.
Before we get into how to use the color wheel to create color palettes for your designs, let’s take a quick look at some color-related terms that will help you understand the different types of colors you might be using as you work on design projects:
- Hue: synonymous with “color” or the name of a specific color; traditionally refers to one of the 12 colors on the color wheel
- Shade: a hue darkened with black
- Tone: a hue dulled with gray
- Tint: a hue lightened with white
- Saturation: refers to the intensity or purity of a color (the closer a hue approaches to gray, the more desaturated it is)
- Value: refers to the lightness or darkness of a color
Now that we’ve got the more technical stuff out of the way, let’s look at how the color wheel can be a practical resource in choosing colors for a design project. We can pull a number of classic palettes from the color wheel that painters have been using for centuries to create balanced and visually pleasing (or high-contrast and striking) compositions. In most design applications, these color schemes will need to be split into one dominant color — dominant either because of how much it appears in the design, or because of how it stands out in comparison with other colors — and one or more accent colors.
- Monochromatic: various shades, tones, or tints of one color; for instance, a range of blues varying from light to dark; this type of scheme is more subtle and conservative
- Analogous: hues that are side by side on the color wheel; this type of scheme is versatile and easy to apply to design projects
- Complementary: opposites on the color wheel, such as red/green or blue/orange; complementary colors are high-contrast and high-intensity, but can be difficult to apply in a balanced, harmonious way (especially in their purest form, when they can easily clash in a design)
- Split-Complementary: any color on the color wheel plus the two that flank its complement; this scheme still has strong visual contrast, but is less jarring than a complementary color combination
- Triadic: any three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel
- Tetradic/Double-Complementary: two complementary pairs; this scheme is very eye-catching, but may be even harder to apply than one pair of complementary colors, since more colors are more difficult to balance. If you use this type of scheme, you’ll want to choose one of the four to be the dominant color and adjust the saturation/value/etc. of some or all the colors so they work well in different parts of your design like the text and background.