Color Theory Basics in Design

February 11, 2020
Written By nataly capote

Why do colors affect the way we feel? There's a reason that people feel more depressed in the winter than they do in the summer: the absence of light. Color theory is constantly used by companies to elicit specific reactions from customers, whether it's excitement, relaxation, hope or happiness. It takes most people 90 seconds to decide whether they'll buy a product, and 90% of that choice is based on color.

What is color theory?

Put simply, color theory is the science and the art of mixing colors. Most of us know the terms primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. We've heard of hue, tint, shades, and complimentary colors. But how do we go from this basic knowledge to choosing a legendary color combination that wins over our audience? Generally, these are the emotions evoked by certain colors:

  • red: love, passion, intensity
  • yellow: joy, intellect, attention-grabbing
  • orange: energy, vitality, warmth
  • blue: trust, peace, stability
  • green: growth, novelty, wellness
  • purple: royalty, wealth, luxury
  • black: class, power, elegance
  • white: cleanliness, calm, simplicity

These are the common emotions, but note that not everyone will perceive colors in the same way. Their background, culture, age, and upbringing will all influence the meanings they assign to certain colors. That's why this next point is imperative to choosing the best color palette for your brand.

Know your audience

It always comes back to the people who will buy your product, visit your website, or follow your social account. Always design with them in mind. Before you start throwing together colors, remember who you're designing for and how you can best grab their attention. It might be helpful here to create buyer personas so you can better identify those who might be interested in your product or service. Also, always make sure your color palette aligns with your company's purpose.

Creating color combinations

Once you have your company's purpose down and your audience defined, it's time to set the mood. Here are some common color combinations that stem from color theory.

analogous colors

Analogous colors are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. The result is a harmonious and natural look.

complimentary colors

Complimentary colors are pairs that are directly across from each other on the color wheel. They usually create a strong contrast and grab one's attention.

triadic colors

To choose a triadic color palette, pick a color and draw an equilateral triangle. These combinations tend to feel well-balanced.


Monochromatic colors are very "in" right now. It involves choosing a color, then adding various shades of white and black.

What about those fancy color terms?

You should definitely know the difference between color, hue, tint, tone, and shade. They're actually a lot simpler than we think.

  • Tint: also known as pastel, and is created by adding white.
  • Hue: the dominant, underlying base of the color you're looking at.
  • Shade: created by adding black.
  • Tone: created by adding gray.

Tools to help you choose

You're not alone in this; there's inspiration everywhere. Pinterest or Behance are great places to start and see what kind of look you want to go for. You can also use online tools to help develop your color palette. Adobe color wheel is great for extracting colors from an image, or starting a palette from scratch. Color hunt is great for design inspiration, if you want something a little more readily available. Coolors generates color palettes at the touch of a space bar, and Color Supply is a nice traditional method for choosing as well.

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