How to Use Monochromatic Colors in Your Designs

It’s design time, but before you can dive into those nitty-gritty design elements you can’t wait to experiment with, there’s another bridge to cross. It’s circular and multi-colored. That’s right — it’s time to face the color wheel.

We’re not saying that choosing a color scheme has to make you lose sleep at night. It’s just that working with colors can sometimes feel like being a kid in a toy store with only enough money for one toy. There are endless options, and if you don’t have a brand color palette to work from, getting started can be difficult.

To help, we’re bringing a popular option to the table. Meet: the monochromatic color palette.

What are monochromatic colors?

Those who live by the principles of color theory know monochromatic color schemes (or “palettes”) to consist of much more than just “one” color, as the term’s 'mono-’ prefix might suggest. When working with these color choices, it’s important to familiarize yourself with a few key terms:

  • Hue: The dominant color family of any particular color (ex: blue)

  • Tint: A mixture of a hue and the color white, resulting in a less intense and less saturated look. Tints are also referred to as pastels. 

  • Tone: A mixture of a hue with gray (made from black and white). 

  • Shade: A mixture of a hue and the color black, resulting in something darker, richer, and more intense.

So, monochromatic schemes aren’t based on a single color; rather, they’re centered around a single hue. For instance, if you choose a blue monochromatic color scheme, you can use variations of the hue, all made by changing its saturation levels and ending with either the hue itself, or a tint, tone, or shade.

Effective monochromatic schemes create refined simplicity and total visual cohesion. They’re not inherently loud or brassy, but can enhance provocative designs. They also play nicely with well-chosen contrasting colors, and they’re a smart choice for melding your brand to a specific and familiar hue. 

Now that you have monochromatic color palettes on the mind, it’s time to toss ya a few examples of how you can use them.

Use a monochromatic color palette to create interconnectivity

Image credit: Tracy477

Since monochromatic color schemes feature related colors, they work well in establishing relationships between parts of a design. There’s no doubt that this is an abstract visual, but its red variations illuminate the geometric patterns and connect them better than if this same design were to use a strictly black and white palette or something more complicated. 

Image credit: Sean Walker

Notice how contrasting tints and shades help form a cohesive look within the grid of individual images. Also keep in mind that many monochromatic designs make use of neutral colors in some fashion. Here, a white backdrop adds even more definition to the monochromatic grid.  

Image credit: Kwaniie

Pay special attention to the shades of blue in this design. They direct the eye, right? Darker shades are used against white to highlight data points and other areas of interest on the page. 

Experiment with grayscale monochromatic color schemes

Image credit: RESET Co. 

Some people are way too quick in ruling out using grayscale. It’s not a boring look! When used effectively, grayscale offers sophistication to any design, like in Inkplant’s branding materials. We expect to see some of these tattoos in color. Instead, subdued tones, coupled with a black background, create an intriguing and distinctive look. 

Also worth adding to your memory bank: grayscale is not the same as simple black and white. It represents variations of the two.  

Image credit: Brada

Three variations of gray are at work in this design. They effectively contrast the image’s main components. As we mentioned earlier, black and white are often used in some capacity with a monochromatic color scheme to add extra contrast. Such is the case with the Mythology Fitness card being tossed into the air.

Image credit: Sergey Pavlov

Check out how grayscale functions in this architectural space. Despite being a neutral color, it actually stands out in the building. Be it the dark gray arches or the thin geometric patterns lining the ceiling and walls, gray is a featured player in this elegant and modern design.

Simplify loud designs with a monochromatic color palette

Image credit: Patricia Pessoa

A monochromatic color palette’s greatest strength might be its ability to simplify intricate designs. Imagine this same drawing with a tetradic color scheme (two sets of complementary colors). The result could be overwhelming. Not the case here, where monochromatic blue (along with a healthy supply of white) emphasizes a carefully crafted pattern within the woman’s dress. 

Image credit: Eleanor Lutz

We have a similar look here with the spinal cord architecture blueprints. No question that this is complex. However, the monochromatic blue variations help simplify the image for viewing. Intricate 3D shapes are rendered more visually understandable thanks to the use of different tones.

Image credit: Chris Fernandez

Most of us are familiar with the traditional recycling symbol, but not in the clever way it's been designed to represent recycling technology. This designer effectively uses a monochromatic color scheme, adding depth and understanding to the inside of an otherwise recognizable symbol.  

Use a *mostly* monochromatic color scheme to create superior contrast

Image credit: Ray Rodriguez

Of course, you can always use a monochromatic color scheme that also features contrasting hues. Since colors within a single hue blend together, designers have an opportunity to really make their images pop when they add one or more contrasting colors. In this design, the model’s vibrantly colored features create a striking contrast with the blue pastels. An unimposing white completes the look.

Image credit: Michael Martinho

Hummel relies on a predominately grayscale color scheme, but uses dabs of teal (along with a few other colors) for its products and call-to-action buttons. The otherwise subdued look helps draw viewers’ eyes to the CTAs and product listings. 

Image credit: Aiden Anderson

We have an even simpler contrast here. The general use of green helps the “salmon house” stand on its own within the image. Small touches of white add to the scenery without pulling attention away from the design’s focal point.

Ready to start designing?

Monochromatic  color schemes are a great starting point for any creation. They play well in websites, products, interior design projects, and more. And when you use PicMonkey for your designs, we make choosing colors as easy as can be. So whether you’re a brand starting from scratch or a seasoned pro just looking for some new ideas, consider using a monochromatic palette for your next project!   

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Joe Wolff

Joe Wolff is a Chicago-based writer and novelist. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking fancy things and then ruining the plating, running so that his tall and awkward frame isn't wasted, and allowing Chicago sports teams to determine his mood. He's a proud graduate of the University of Florida, whose sports teams tend to do a much better job of mood regulation.