Color Theory

Why Color is Important

Color is a vital part of design. It creates a visual impact. It evokes emotion. It organizes a design. Color is life. That is why understanding color and how to effectively use it is important for a graphic designer.

Color as a Science

More than anything color is a science. Color is light. The science of our anatomy determines what colors we see and how we perceive them. Understanding how color works and the color wheel will help you develop better design.

The Color Wheel

The idea of the color wheel is elementary - meaning that you probably learned it in elementary school art class. However, understanding the color wheel will allow you as a designer to know what colors work best with what colors.

Color Wheel

Primary Colors

Primary colors are the basic colors used to create other colors. According to traditional color wheels, these colors are red, yellow and blue. They are used to make the secondary and tertiary colors. The traditional color wheel is not based on science like the other color models are though. For people, our eyes are developed to perceive red, green and blue. That is why screens and devices use the RGB (red, green and blue) color model. Even printing has a different primary color base. Printing uses different combinations of CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to create different colors. Knowing what medium you are working with (screen, print or brush) is vital to knowing what color model to use to achieve the best results.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are created by mixing two primary colors. Red and blue makes purple...and so on. On the color wheel, secondary colors appear on the wheel directly across from the color it complements. This is important because those colors (yellow-purple, red-green and orange-blue) have the most contrast.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary and secondary color or two secondary colors.


Analogous colors appear side-by-side on the color wheel. This type of color palette creates unity since the colors are similar to each other. It can create a warm or cool feeling depending on the colors used. Since they are next to each other on the wheel they lack contrast which decreases visibility and vibrancy. They are harmonious and easy on the eye.

Analagous Colors


Complementary colors have opposite hues. When mixed together equally they create a neutral color (gray, black or white). They are best used for creating contrast which adds vibrancy, energy and visibility to a design. Too much can be overwhelming and high-contrasting colors should not be used in large quantities of text.

Complementary Colors


Triadic colors use three colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. Like complementary colors, they are vibrant and can be overwhelming if not subdued. Use one color dominantly and the other two as accents.

Triadic Colors


Monochromatic color schemes use the shades, tints and tones of one specific color hue. They can be boring due to their lack of contrast. However, they are also peaceful and harmonious to the eye.

Monochromatic Colors

Picking Color

As shown above, picking colors can be a science. But, developing a color scheme should also take into consideration history, nature and culture.

Nothing produces color like nature, so use it as an inspiration in choosing a palette.

Throughout history, colors have meant different things. Think back to different decades in history and think about the colors associated with that time period. The 80s had bright neon colors and the 50s had the pale pink and turquoise. Colors can bring to mind a specific time period and reflect history.

The meaning and perception of different colors also changes from culture to culture. Red to the United States means anger and love. Red for China symbolizes things like good fortune, luck and celebration. Take into account the culture of the audience when picking color to convey a specific meaning.

Even the context in which the color is used can evoke different meaning. Green in business can mean money and wealth. In a medical context it can represent sickness. In a personal context it can portray envy.

Color is more than science so take into account all the factors before utilizing them.

Information Gathered From

White Space is Not Your Enemy: A Beginner's Guide to Communicating Visually Through Graphic, Web & Multimedia Design by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen