Design 101: Color Theory

February 25, 2016


Design 101 is a series that breaks down fundamental design concepts for anyone to understand. Just because you may not be a professional designer does not mean that you should be unable to access good, affordable, and skilled design! For some people, this means that design needs to be done on your own. We’re here to help. By understanding some design and branding basics, you will be able to take control of your design needs and your personal brand.

Design 101: Understanding Color Theory

It should come as no surprise that humans respond strongly to images and color. From an evolutionary standpoint, we needed to see and respond to our surroundings long before we developed the written word. Visual content elicits a reaction. While this is not to say that text content is not crucial in conveying information, visual content should not be ignored.

Just because you may not consider yourself an artist, designer, or creative does not mean that you should ignore your visuals. Even if you do consider yourself any of these things, awesome visuals can help you create meaningful, shareable, and innovative content that drives traffic and keeps your customers coming back for more.

Ready? Let Design 101 begin.

Colors & What’s In Between

Colors can be understood due to their relationships to three groupings of color, referred to as primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Primary: Red, Yellow, Blue

These cannot be created by combining any other colors

Primary colors, red, blue and yellow

Secondary: Orange, Green, Purple

Can be created by combining two primary colors

Secondary colors of orange, green, and purple
Tertiary: Colors created when you mix a primary color with a secondary color
Tertiary colors example

Remember that color is way more complex than breaking it down to simply the color names and some variants. Colors are rich and deep, and can vary drastically depending on the core colors that make it up and the amount of black, white, or gray that is also found in its makeup. From here, describing color becomes more complex.

Hue: The color that you perceive when you look at the object.

Shade: The hue with black added.

Tint: The hue with white added.

Saturation: The hue with both black and white added.

So, primary colors stand alone and cannot be developed using any other color. Secondary and tertiary colors are created using some combination of primary and secondary colors. From here, the shade, tint, and saturation of a color (or hue) differs based on the amount of black or white that has been added.

How Complementary Colors Work

If you imagine a color wheel, complementary colors are those that sit directly across from one another and can be used to create nuanced contrast aimed at bringing out the best in both colors. For example, red and green, blue and orange, and purple and yellow are considered complementary of one another. This is not the only way that colors may look good together. Color combinations may also be:

Analogous: Colors next to one another on the color wheel

Triadic: Three different colors that are evenly spaced from one another on the color wheel

Split-Complement: One base color and the two colors that are adjacent to that base color’s complement

Monochromatic: Colors based on the same shades and tints of one hue

Color Wheel Examples

While colors and the amount of black and white that are present can change the color’s appearance, additional colors that interplay also have an impact on design. Consider your branding- what colors are you using? Do they fall within basic color theory?

Effect of Color on Branding

The colors you choose to represent your brand has an impact on the way that it is perceived in the public arena because each color has a certain mood and feel to it. For more information on this, check out our interview with Leslie Harrington!

Even different tints and shades can challenge the traditional color meanings that have come to be associated with specific hues. Complementary colors play a role in the overall impact that your colors have. Known as color context, the way that colors relate to one another depends on their contrast. For example, the same shade of green may appear darker next to a lighter color, and lighter next to a darker color.

When you are branding your business, your color plays a significant role in how your design will make your customers feel. Understanding how colors interplay with one another can allow you to build a strategy for external products, social media, and any place that you are seeking to make a visual impact!