When designers make choices about color, their decisions are informed by science. And where hard data is not available, consensus becomes the foremost guide. Collective wisdom also dictates which color combinations seem to harmonize or clash unpleasantly. Together, this creative toolbox is known as color theory.
By referring to color theory, designers and artists can shape perceptions and elicit emotions. Furthermore, color theory has a proven track record in the marketing world, helping to guide customer opinions, influence their purchasing decisions, and ultimately drive sales. Such powerful results are too important to ignore.
If you have yet to discover color theory, this comprehensive guide should help get you started.
What Is Color?
Before diving into the theory, you must first understand how color works.
Contrary to popular belief, grass isn’t green and roses are not red. These organic surfaces merely reflect light at specific wavelengths. Inside your eye, cone-shaped cells detect these wavelengths. Finally, your brain interprets the incoming information as color.
The caveat is that our modern world is filled with artificial illumination. These light sources can appear colorful, while also altering our perception of reflective objects.
Additive and Subtractive
The work of artists and designers is to bring some order to this chaos. There are two ways to control color. First: The subtractive color model, used for physical media, assumes you are starting with ambient white light. From this light, you “subtract” specific colors to reach your desired hue.
Second, when color comes straight from a light source, the additive model is used. For instance, the screen on which you are currently reading this article is producing its own light. Even if you were sitting in total darkness, the words would still be visible and the images would still appear vibrant.
Because the additive model is a relatively recent development, the principles of color theory are largely based on the subtractive model. In particular, they rely on the color wheel.
The Color Wheel
Color can be defined very precisely in scientific terms. Each hue represents a specific wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum, somewhere above ultraviolet and below infrared. This system allows scientists to order every color into one continuous scale.
It was back in 1665 that Sir Isaac Newton, the English scientist of apple-falling fame, first tried to tame the rainbow. His conceptual wheel was the Periodic Table of color, encompassing every hue he had produced using a prism. His efforts remain the basis of our current system.
The basic color wheel is divided into 12 main sections. At equal distances around the full circle, you will find the three base (or primary) colors: yellow, blue, and red. Mix together two of these colors, and you will form a secondary color: orange, green, or violet. Notice that the primary and secondary colors make up the colors of a rainbow, along with indigo. Mixing a base with a secondary color produces a tertiary color. This category includes the likes of red-orange, yellow-green, and blue-violet.
The wheel is arranged so that every color is opposite a complementary hue. For instance, green looks across at red, while orange is paired with blue. Some color wheels have 24 named colors; others provide a 360-degree spectrum. In all cases, the fundamentals remain the same.
In Newton’s day — and for several centuries after his passing — the colors red, yellow, and blue were at the heart of all color theory. But after printing became automated in the late 19th century, a new system, known as CMYK, was gradually adopted. The CMYK color space blends different levels of cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black) to reach any hue. Today, the CMYK space and its derivatives are the standard systems used for printed media.
For the additive model, the assumed starting point is total darkness. Varying intensities of red, green, and blue are then added to produce different colors. With all three colors set to their maximum brightness, the hue produced is white.
This color space is known as RGB. In 1996, HP and Microsoft collaborated to produce a standardized version, named sRGB.
When using design software, such as Shutterstock Editor, you may come across RGB hex codes. They look something like this: #0d98ba. Each code represents a specific hue in the RGB color space. There are 16,777,216 colors to choose from, in total.
Having learned how color is perceived and controlled, the final step is to understand how it is described.
We often use terms such as “tone,” “shade,” and “tint” interchangeably with “color.” In fact, they all have very different meanings:
- Hue: Direct replacement for “color,” and may refer specifically to colors on the color wheel.
- Shade: A hue that has been mixed with black.
- Tone: A hue that has been mixed with gray.
- Tint: A hue that has been mixed with white.
- Saturation: The intensity of a color, relative to gray.
Defining the Theories
While visual creativity is highly subjective, there are common principles which always seem to work. For instance, most of us would avoid adorning our violet bedspread with green pillows. These colors just don’t fit well together. Some people may even squirm at such a clash.
Of course, you may relish the violet-green combination on a personal level, and within the confines of your own home, you are perfectly welcome to indulge these tastes. But for brands targeting the mainstream, such idiosyncrasies can be financially devastating. Color theory can help you to avoid the pitfalls.
When you’re designing a new website or getting artistic, color harmonies are usually the best place to start.
Opposing colors on the color wheel are known as complementary colors. When used together, these hues provide the greatest possible color contrast. While this can certainly be eye-catching, the meeting of intense polar opposites can result in something seemingly lurid. Unless intense visual impact is your only objective, it is usually best to move one space in either direction on the color wheel from the direct opposite. This is called split-complementary harmony, and it still leaves an impression without making viewers recoil.
In complete contrast, monochromatic color harmonies (like in the image above) are subtle and sophisticated. They involve only one hue on the color wheel, in varying shades, tones, or tints. For instance, you might match fully saturated blue with a much subtler gray-blue color. For obvious reasons, these color combinations do not always make for great impact. That said, using lighter shades on a darker, more saturated background (and vice versa) can still provide sufficient contrast for garnering attention.
Another option is analogous color harmony. After selecting your starting color, you simply move one way or the other around the color wheel. This can work nicely with three or even four consecutive colors, offering a richer effect than monochromatic harmonies. If you’re just starting out in design, analogous combinations are probably the easiest to work with.
Triadic and Tetradic Colors
For folks with greater design ambitions, it’s also worth exploring triadic and tetradic color harmonies. The former involves picking three colors that are spaced equally around the color wheel. This makes for significant contrast, so it may be worth exploring different tones and tints. The key to using this technique successfully is keeping all three colors balanced.
Tetradic harmonies include two pairs of complementary colors, with a space in between. These harmonies are very striking, delivering almost kindergarten-style vibrancy. They are best used when color contrasts are essential.
For a better understanding of how these harmonies work in practice, let’s look at some examples.
The red and green of Christmas are a classic case of complementary harmony. Few people would choose these two hues for anything else, but their richness seems appropriate at a time of food and gift-giving. Likewise, the world-famous Los Angeles Lakers basketball team play in yellow and purple. The combination is dazzling, but that’s fine in a sports league that’s all about showmanship.
The logo of the Mozilla Firefox browser uses slightly subtler split-complementary colors. The orange, yellow, and blue combination is vibrant yet tasteful. The pink, purple, and yellow of Taco Bell’s former logo feels slightly more shocking, but this is probably because the chosen hues are closer to being complementary.
Monochromatic harmonies tend to be used more in branding than for logos, due to their muted impact. However, the Animal Planet TV channel blends different colors and textures of green in a logo that still draws the eye.
The green and yellow logo of oil giant BP is a fascinating mix of monochromatic and analogous harmonies. Moving out from the white center, you first reach yellow, then a muted light green, and then forest green. It’s a delightful combination that is both subtle and visually arresting.
Triadic and Tetradic Logos
You can see a version of triadic color harmony at work in Burger King’s logo. The red, blue, and dark yellow are not precisely equidistant on the color wheel. As a result, the color contrast is somewhat curbed. This delivers something more aesthetically pleasing than a textbook triadic harmony.
There is a surprising number of tetradic harmonies to be found in the world of technology. The Microsoft, Google, and eBay are famously multicolored, injecting a sense of fun to the tech scene.
Aesthetic guidelines are only half the story when it comes to color. While harmonies can be more pleasant to look at than clashing hues, each color comes with emotional baggage. Much of the time, this is through association. For instance, Western cultures promote white as the color of weddings, and red as the color of love and luxury.
There are, however, certain colors that have a physiological effect on the viewer. Science is still working to unravel these reactions, but research suggests that there may be links to our primitive past. Here’s a run-though of what you can expect from each major color group.