Color Theory: Choosing the Best Colors for Your Designs

If you’re not a designer, you might not know what a gradient, logotype, or die cut is. You might think kerning refers to the unopened popcorn at the bottom of the bucket or ascenders are a new strain of action hero. But there’s one design element that you surely know a lot about: Color. You know what you like and what you don’t. You know how colors make you feel. And you know which colors go well together and which ones clash.

Color theory is the science and philosophy behind using color in design. It guides our choices so we pick the most effective colors for different situations and helps us create compelling combinations. But color theory isn’t objective. When it comes to color choices, there’s plenty of room for intuitiveness and personal preference. Let’s take a look at some of the basics of color theory and how we can use these imprecise principles to create powerful designs.

The color wheel

The rainbow color wheel might look simple, but it actually took one of the greatest scientists of all time, Sir Isaac Newton, to invent it back in 1666. While there are variations in how to design a color wheel, the basic idea is that there are three primary colors from which all other colors are derived (red, blue, and yellow); three secondary colors formed from the combinations of primary colors (green, orange, and purple); and six tertiary colors that are formed from mixing primary and secondary colors (yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green).

Color harmony

In “The Sound of Music,” the Von Trapp kids want to know why Fraulein Maria is teaching them about do-re-mi. Similarly, you might be wondering what the purpose is of learning about red, blue, and yellow. Well, just like musical notes are used to compose songs, colors are the building blocks for paintings, designs, and images. What’s more, the color wheel helps us figure out which colors can be combined to create beautiful harmonies.

The idea of color harmony is that the combination you create is perfectly balanced with the right amount of contrast. The goal is to come up with a design that isn’t too bland but not too discordant either. One way to achieve a harmonious color state is by combining analogous colors, which sit side by side on the color wheel (such as yellow, yellow-green, and green). An analogous color scheme creates a soothing, serene feeling because the colors match. But in order to ensure your design doesn’t put your viewer to sleep, you can use black, white, or gray as accents for contrast.

Another path to harmony is to combine complementary colors, which are located directly opposite each other on the wheel (green and purple, for example). These color combinations have the maximum amount of contrast, yielding an exciting, vibrant design. But be careful not to overuse this method, or else your design might be too jarring.

You can use the color wheel to create other interesting color combinations, such as triadic (three colors spaced evenly from each other, forming a triangle), tetradic (four colors made up of two complementary pairs), square (four colors spaced evenly around the circle), and split-complementary (three colors, with one base color matched with the two colors adjacent to its complement).

If you bisect the color wheel with a line down the middle, you’ll have warm colors on one side and cool colors on the other. You can create a color scheme of warm colors to evoke energy, vitality, and excitement, while a cool color scheme would evoke calm, peace, and tranquility.

Tints, shades, and tones

If you’ve ever walked into a home improvement store and perused the paint chips, you know there are millions of variations of the basic hues we’ve been talking about. You can arrive at those variations by mixing pure hues together to form new ones, and you can also add white, black, or a shade of gray. A tint is created by adding white to a hue, making it less intense and less saturated. Think pastel colors that are soft and subtle. A shade is created by adding black to a hue, which creates a darker, richer, more intense color. A tone is created by adding both black and white, or gray, which allows for a myriad of variations.

The meaning of colors

Parsing the meaning of colors goes beyond just warm vs. cool, vibrant vs. peaceful. Over time, colors have taken on more specific connotations, and are therefore able to provoke certain feelings and emotions in people. While meanings might vary, here’s a rundown of what each color has come to signify in the United States. But of course, there’s a lot of overlap with color meanings in countries all over the world.

Red: Strength, power, passion, excitement, energy, anger, blood, war.Orange: Fire, sun, friendly, cheerful, food, good appetite, autumn.Yellow: Youth, fun, happiness, sunshine, optimism, hope, warmth.Green: Growth, nature, peace, health, safety, military, money, finance.Blue: Cool, calm, sadness, loyalty, strength, wisdom, trust, dependable.Purple: Royalty, nobility, prestige, luxury, mystery, magic, creative.Black: Evil, scary, death, wealth, elegance, class, mystery, mourning.White: Pure, clean, fresh, good, innocence, hospitals, heaven.Gray: Balance, neutral, calm, conservative, formal.

While you wouldn’t want to take these definitions too literally, they can guide you in your color choices. For example, a banking, financial services, or tech company will often go with a blue logo to suggest trust and dependability (Hewlett Packard, IBM, Dell, American Express, JP Morgan). Because warm colors such as orange, yellow, and red suggest food and hunger, they’re often found in the logos and restaurant decor of fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Subway. And companies as varied as Whole Foods, BP, and John Deere choose green to evoke nature, health, and sustainability.

Cultural and societal differences

Most of these color meanings have become so inscribed in our psyches, it’s hard to imagine them any other way. But in different countries and cultures around the world, colors sometimes have different meanings. In the Middle East, orange is associated with mourning and loss. In Eastern and Asian countries, black signifies health and prosperity. Brides in China and India wear red. In Latin America, green is the color of death.

The meanings of colors can evolve over time in a single culture as well. As recently as the 1920s, little boys in the United States wore pink and little girls wore blue. Department stores bickered over the distinction for a while, until pink moved solidly over to the feminine side by the 1950s. While pink remains popular for girls clothing and Barbie doll packaging, these days there’s a lot more fluidity in color choices by gender.

Now that you’re armed with more color theory than you ever thought you needed to know, you can make wise, informed choices in your designs and sway your audience with your magical knowledge of hues.

Explore our blog and you’ll find more helpful advice on how to create a color palette, how to use your color palette with our templates, and other graphic design tips for non-designers. Good luck! (That’s red in the East and Asia, green in the West and Middle East.)

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Before joining the PicMonkey editorial team as a senior writer, Molly wrote about topics as varied as politics, finance, global health, and online dating. As a fiction writer, she’s published two books, both available on Amazon through totally non-sketchy retailers. A midwestern transplant who now calls Seattle home, Molly firmly believes that the Space Needle is way cooler than the Eiffel Tower.