Color is an enormously powerful tool. It’s capable of influencing the way we react to visuals we’re presented with. Color can make us feel a particular way, and it’ll change our behavior accordingly. And the amazing thing is, the effect of this is so immediate that we rarely notice our subconscious at work.
Some of the world’s most successful design projects rely on color to evoke certain feelings amongst audiences.
We all know that breezy blue hues conjure feelings of relaxation and calmness, for instance. Compare how we feel when we see a soothing baby blue design with one that uses bursts of fiery reds and oranges and you’ll soon start to see how color impacts both our moods and our behavior.
But why is that? And how can designers use it to their advantage?
Well, it all comes down to understanding color theory.
Already in use by designers all over the world, color theory goes back hundreds of years. In this article, we’ll dive into the world of color to find out why color theory is so important in graphic design. Then, we’ll start to explore some go-to color schemes, to see that color theory in action.
What is color theory?
Color theory is where science meets art. Established by Isaac Newton back in 1666, color theory refers to the study of colors and how they influence perception and emotion.
Newton introduced us to the idea that different colors are in fact just different ways of perceiving wavelengths of light. It's widely understood that colors evoke different feelings when viewed, but color theory seeks to go one step further, by really explaining how humans perceive color and how colors can be used to communicate different messages.
An understanding of color theory is essential for designers, because it teaches us how colors work together, which colors complement each other, and how different hues can be combined to create bold contrasts that immediately draw the eye.
Isaac Newton went on to group different colors in categories, coming up with what would become known as the color wheel. So, let’s find out more about what the creation of the color wheel meant for our understanding of color - and why it remains such an important discovery to this day.
Introducing the color wheel
Newton’s color wheel saw colors grouped into the categories that we still see them in today. In creating the color wheel, Newton established a spectrum of 12 colors and mapped them onto a wheel.
The different shades of the color wheel are grouped in three main categories. First, we have primary colors. These are red, yellow and blue.
Next, you’ll find what’s known as secondary colors. The secondary colors are those that can be created by simply mixing pairs of the three primary colors. For instance, yellow and blue creates green, red and yellow will give you orange, and red and blue combine to make purple.
Tertiary colors make up the rest of the color wheel. These are made using both primary and secondary colors, and include combinations of colors such as yellow-green and red-orange.
One of the key benefits of grouping colors through the color wheel is that it allows us to see, at a glance, how colors work together. The color wheel makes finding complementary colors easy, and it’s also brilliant when it comes to choosing the perfect hue to contrast with your chosen color scheme.
7 color schemes you need to know about
Designers use a range of different color schemes to create impactful, striking designs for a multitude of purposes. Let’s take a look at some of the most widely used color schemes to find out more about what makes them so powerful.
If a color scheme is described as monochromatic, it uses a single color. The palette is created by mixing black or white with a chosen shade, to create a series of different tones that all have the same color as a base.
This color scheme doesn’t use contrast in the way that you would if you had more than one color to play with, but it's still possible to create eye-catching designs in a monochromatic color palette. In fact, you’d be surprised how impactful such a palette can be, particularly when designers explore intensity to draw the eye to certain focal points within the design.
The word achromatic literally means ‘without color’. So, you’d be forgiven for questioning how an achromatic color scheme might work. However, we’re not talking about all colors here.
Achromatic color schemes use black, white and gray to achieve a striking effect that’s as sophisticated as it is simple. Often used in minimalist design, achromatic color schemes can be spectacular when deployed in an original way.
In an analogous color scheme, designers pick a single base color and combine this with a pair of colors from right next to it on the color wheel.
By choosing three colors from the same area of the color wheel, designers create a color scheme that works in perfect harmony, no matter how busy the design might be.
As similar colors are used in this color scheme, the choice of base color really is paramount. Designers can change the whole feel of the design simply by switching base color, so careful consideration is given to choosing the initial base color, before an analogous color scheme is brought to life.
A triadic color scheme is one that brings together a trio of colors, which can be found at equal distances on the wheel. When a line is drawn between the three chosen colors, it should form a perfect triangle.
By choosing three colors at different locations on the color wheel, designers can create a color scheme with rich contrasts that draw the eye. It’s then down to the designer to decide how the three colors should be used together. Usually, designers will choose to champion one color, using the remaining two to complement it.
A tetradic color scheme is formed of four colors. The four should be chosen from the color wheel so that a line drawn between them would form a rectangle, in a similar way to the triadic color scheme.
A tetradic palette gives designers two pairs of complementary colors, to be used in a design as they see fit. Using all colors to an equal degree might make the design appear confused, but if colors are chosen carefully, with some dominating and others used as accents, the end result can be quite impactful.
A complementary color scheme is a simpler, but no less powerful type of color scheme. Here, two colors are used to create a bold contrast throughout the design. The chosen colors should be taken from opposite positions on the color wheel.
When designers choose a complementary color palette, they might also incorporate different shades of the two chosen colors to create more depth in the design. It’s a simple way of creating a striking design that’ll never fail to get a viewer’s attention.
In split complementary color schemes, three colors are used to create a memorable look. Designers choose a single base color, along with two colors from the opposite position on the color wheel.
By choosing colors in this way, designers can easily create a palette that combines a single, bold shade to use as a primary color, along with two striking contrasts that are perfect for accentuating the primary hue and emboldening the final design.
This option works well in web design, where brand colors can be used to create immediately recognisable pages that carry users through a site.
Useful color terminology
The world of color is jam-packed with terminology that explains different hues in more detail, shining a light on why certain shades work as they do. While designers will know these words like the back of their hands, to others they can be far more mysterious.
So, let’s get up to speed on some of the terminology that’ll prove essential in our quest to really understand color schemes and what they mean.
This simply means the discernable color of an object. For example, it could have a red hue, or a green one.
The word saturation refers to how strong the color is. As it moves closer to black the color grows stronger. Moving a color closer to white weakens it.
When a color is combined with gray, its tone can be adjusted to create the shades needed for a full palette.
The value of a color refers to its lightness or darkness. Different values can be used to create depth in an image, drawing the eye to certain points.
When white is added to a color, it creates a certain tint. Designers will often play around with tints to create a complex color palette.
If a color is combined with black, it adds shade. Shade is used in several of the color schemes we’ve talked about to add complexity to a design.
When we talk about chroma, we’re actually talking about the purity of a color. It describes the extent to which a color has been altered with the addition of black, white or gray.
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Design project management software Hello Ivy gives designers the tools they need to create picture-perfect color palettes.
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With Hello Ivy, designers can discuss color palettes, incorporate feedback, share ideas and plan their next projects. Keeping design teams on top of what’s happening and when, Hello Ivy has been proven to boost productivity and improve engagement.
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