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Learn all you need to know about color schemes and how to apply them to your next design project with this in-depth article.

A color scheme consists of a combination of colors used in a range of design disciplines, from fine art to interior design to graphic design. Each color scheme consists of one or more of the twelve colors present on the color wheel. By pairing different colors with each other, you can create endless color palettes to use in any composition. Different color combinations evoke different moods or tones by using color theory and color psychology.


What is a Color Scheme: Definitions, Types, and Examples — Color Wheel

Color wheel via picoStudio.

Thinking of a color palette for your work can be overwhelming and time-consuming. Luckily, you don’t have to sit for hours trying out every color combination to find one that looks good. You can use tried-and-true color schemes to find a combination that works, or you can use this color scheme tool and select from a vast range of hues and find its monochromatic, complementary, analogous, or triadic counterparts.

Read on to learn about the main color schemes below, plus find some tips on how to make the most of each color scheme.

Monochromatic Color Scheme

Monochromatic color schemes focus on a single color, often using variations of that hue by incorporating tints, tones, and shades. By adding hints of white, grey, or black, that single color expands into an entire palette with varying amounts of value. Those tints, tones, and shades provide highlights and shadows to spruce up an otherwise flat color palette.

What is a Color Scheme: Definitions, Types, and Examples — Monochromatic Color Wheel

This color scheme is extremely versatile and easy on the eye. Using many hues in a design can often lead to a clash in colors and obstruct the design’s appearance; contrasting color variations on one hue helps to simplify a design without making it too flat. In the illustration below, the incorporation of darker orange and brown hues provide visual interest while still keeping the overall color scheme minimal.

Monochromatic color schemes are also increasing in popularity due to the rise of minimalism in all aspects of design, from interior design to packaging design to website design. This color scheme also provides ample room for content or important information on websites or advertisements.

What is a Color Scheme: Definitions, Types, and Examples — Monochrome for Web Design

Vector via Darko 1981

A monochromatic palette doesn’t mean the color choice has to be boring or expected; the color choice just needs to work within the context of the brand or design. When using this color scheme, be sure to know the base color’s psychology and how it impacts the product or design’s tone and mood. Because there is typically only one hue to focus on, it is crucial to incorporate elements of contrast to guide the eye throughout. Using a color palette with hues of similar value will make your design flat and one-dimensional.

Complementary Color Scheme

Complementary colors exist on opposite sides of the color wheel; one color is usually a primary color and the other a secondary color. The main complementary colors are typically blue and orange, red and green, and yellow and purple.

What is a Color Scheme: Definitions, Types, and Examples — Complementary Color Wheel

Colors opposite each other on the color wheel typically provide high contrast when paired together. At full saturation, complementary hues can be too intense for the viewer. To tone down the intensity, incorporate tints, tones, and shades to extend the palette, just as we did with the monochromatic color scheme. For example, Rico Rico’s brand design below incorporates lighter and darker values of orange and blue to make the complementary palette easier on the eyes.

When done successfully, complementary palettes can make a huge impact on a design. The pairing of a warm and cool hue provides a rich and eye-catching contrast. At first, using complementary schemes can be overwhelming; embrace trial and error and experiment with various palettes. For color guidance, use this practical tool to build out your next color palette.

Analogous Color Scheme

Analogous colors consist of a group of three colors that border each other within the color wheel. This color scheme starts off with a base hue and is extended with two neighboring hues. The word “analogous” means closely related, so the combination of these hues has a harmonious appeal similar to that of monochromatic color schemes.

What is a Color Scheme: Definitions, Types, and Examples — Analogous Color Wheel

These palettes are known to be pleasing to the eyes, so if you’re unsure of which color scheme to use in your next project, an analogous color palette never disappoints. When picking analogous groups for your project, keep your palette grounded by using exclusively cool or warm colors together.

If you need color inspiration, take a look around you. Analogous palettes are routinely found in nature, from luscious sunsets to alluring bird feathers to captivating oceans, giving you that sense of calm and peacefulness. For example, this business card design for Talkfest above incorporates red, pink, and orange hues, giving the design a sunset quality.

Triadic Color Scheme

A triad consists of three colors that are placed equidistant from each other on the color wheel, forming a triangle as seen below. Triadic color schemes can include three primary, secondary, or tertiary colors. Common triadic palettes consist of blue, red, and yellow or violet, green, and orange.

What is a Color Scheme: Definitions, Types, and Examples — Triadic Color Wheel

Most triadic palettes are vibrant and can be difficult to balance. Assign one base hue, then use the remaining hues as accent colors. When all colors in a triadic scheme are being used equally, each hue often fights for the spotlight. A good way to prevent a clash of colors is to establish color hierarchy within the composition.

As with the other color schemes, avoid using all three hues in their fully saturated state. Bring in hints of white, grey, or black to tone down the vibrancy and expand on the palette.

Neutral Color Scheme

Neutral color palettes have recently gained momentum across all design disciplines. The popular color scheme typically consists of achromatic hues (white, grey, and black) along with near neutrals (beige, tan, brown, and other dark hues). All neutral colors have one thing in common: they are typically desaturated with the help of tints, tones, and shades.

What is a Color Scheme: Definitions, Types, and Examples — Neutral Color Selection

Neutral hues taken from the Shutterstock Color Tool.

This color scheme can fit a variety of applications and mediums; the neutral aesthetic has found its place amongst brand designs, stationery, interior decorating, and across social media. The beauty of this color scheme is that it’s hard to go overboard with colors, but as a rule of thumb, try sticking to four hues or less.

Much like monochromatic color schemes, neutral palettes evoke a sense of calmness and serenity. The desaturated tones are easy on the eye and don’t fit within a specific trend.

Cover image via Bernd Schmidt.

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