Color

Within graphic design color plays a vital role. Learn more about color theory in this free video and tutorial.

The power of color

Color plays a vital role in design and everyday life. It can draw your eye to an image. Sometimes it can trigger an emotional response. It can even communicate something important without using words at all.

stoplight

So how do we know which colors look good together and which ones don't? The answer is simple: Color theory.

Artists and designers have followed color theory for centuries, but anyone can learn more about it. It can help you feel confident in many different situations, whether it's choosing colors for a design or putting together the perfect outfit. With a little insight, you'll be looking at color in a whole new way.

Watch the video below to learn more about color.

Color basics

Let's start at the beginning with a refresher on the basics. Remember learning about primary and secondary colors in school? Then you already have some knowledge of color theory.

box of crayons

Secondary colors are created by combining two primary colors. Red and yellow make orange; yellow and blue make green; and blue and red make purple.

red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple dots

If we mix these colors together, we get even more in-between shades, like red-orange and yellow-green. All together, they form what's called a color wheel. (You can probably see where it gets its name.)

color wheel

A closer look

Now that you know about the color wheel, let's take it one step further with hue, saturation, and value. These are terms you might not encounter in daily life, but they're the key to understanding more nuanced colors—like all those little paint chips at the home improvement store.

paint chips

Hue

Hue is the easiest one; it's basically just another word for color. In the example below, you might describe the hue as coral pink or light red, depending on your interpretation.

hue

Saturation

Saturation refers to intensity—in other words, whether the color appears more subtle or more vibrant. Highly saturated colors are brighter or richer. Desaturated colors have less pigment and therefore less oomph.

saturation

Value

Value has to do with how dark or light the color is, ranging from black to white. As you can see below, this gives us many different shades, from a deep reddish brown to a light pastel pink.

value

Creating color schemes

So how do we put this all together to create professional-looking color schemes? There are actually tried-and-true formulas based on something called color harmony that can help.

chemistry set

Color harmony uses the color wheel to illustrate time-tested color combinations. We'll explore some of the most common types of harmony below.

Monochromatic

The easiest formula for harmony is monochromatic because it only uses one color or hue. To create a monochromatic color scheme, pick a spot on the color wheel, then use your knowledge of saturation and value to create variations.

monochromatic

The best thing about monochromatic color schemes is that they're guaranteed to match. The colors suit each other perfectly because they're all from the same family.

Analogous

An analogous color scheme uses colors that are next to each other on the wheel, like reds and oranges or blues and greens.

analogous

Don't be afraid to play with the palette and create your own unique interpretation. That's what color harmony is all about; the formulas are merely starting points to help guide and inspire you.

analogous variation


Complementary

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the wheel; for instance, blue and orange or the classic red and green.

complementary

To avoid complementary color schemes that are too simplistic, add some variety by introducing lighter, darker, or desaturated tones.

complementary variation

Split-complementary

A split-complementary color scheme uses the colors on either side of the complement.

split complementary

This gives you the same level of contrast as a complementary color scheme but more colors to work with (and potentially more interesting results).

Triadic

A triadic color scheme uses three colors that are evenly spaced, forming a perfect triangle on the wheel.

triadic

These combinations tend to be pretty striking—especially when they include primary or secondary colors—so be mindful when using them in your work.

Tetradic

Tetradic color schemes form a rectangle on the wheel, using not one but two complementary color pairs. This formula works best if you let one color dominate while the others serve as an accent.

tetradic

Avoiding common mistakes

There are a few classic dos and don'ts when it comes to color. For instance, have you ever seen colors that seem to vibrate when they're placed next to each other?

clashing colors

The solution is to tone it down—literally—and there's a simple way do it. Start with one color, and try adjusting its lightness, darkness, or saturation. Sometimes a little contrast is all your color palette needs.

visually pleasing colors

Readability is an important factor in any design. Your colors should be legible and easy on the eyes, especially when working with text.

Sometimes that means NOT using color—at least not in every little detail.

clashing website

Neutral colors like black, white, and gray can help you balance your design, so when you do use color, it really stands out.

pleasing website

Choosing the right colors

Every color sends a message. It's important to consider the tone of your project, and choose a color palette that fits.

For example, bright colors tend to have a fun or modern vibe.

modern business card

Desaturated colors often appear more serious or businesslike.

conservative business card

Sometimes it just depends on the context. With practice and creativity, there's no limit to what you can do.

contrasting businesses

Finding inspiration

You can find ideas for color schemes in all kinds of interesting places, from advertising and branding to famous works of art.

classical painting

You can even use a web resource to browse color palettes or generate your own.

Experienced designers often take inspiration from the world around them. There's nothing wrong with finding something you like and making it your own.

online color resource

Putting it all together

Everywhere you look, there's color, color, and more color. It can be intimidating to use it in your work, but it doesn't have to be. Just keep experimenting, and remember what you've learned about color theory. Soon, choosing great-looking colors will feel like second nature.

color-coordinated outfit

We hope you enjoyed learning the basics of color!

Be sure to check out the rest of our graphic design topics, including typography, layout and composition, and images.