By Jennifer Farley

Principles of Design: Color

By Jennifer Farley

Over the past five weeks I’ve written about simple principles you can employ to improve your designs, namely Contrast, Proximity, Balance and Value. In this final part of the series we’re looking at color. Color in design is a huge topic in itself, and I will undoubtedly return to it in future blog posts, but for today let’s take a look at how you can use color schemes when creating a mood for your design.

Color is an integral part of our lives. Nature uses color to warn off potential predators, to attract pollinators, to attract mates and to show fruit is ready for eating. Anyone who drives a car in a city follows traffic rules defined by red, green and amber, no text necessary. In advertising and design, color is used to grab attention and stimulate interest in ways that would be difficult to create by any other means.  Through history color has been used to indicate status, for example nobility and royalty is associated with purple, and color has been an important source of symbolism in many countries.


Something’s not quite right here.

So how do you go about choosing the right colors for your design? There is no single hard and fast rule, but the color wheel is a good place to get started.

Warm and Cool

The three traditional primary colors are red, blue and yellow. When you combine these you get the three secondary colors: orange, purple and green. When you combine each secondary color with its neighboring primary, you get the six tertiary colors: yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, red-purple, red-orange. That’s where the color wheel comes from.


The image above shows colors arranged in the order of the spectrum: Red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple (going anti-clockwise). Red is the warmest and blue is the coolest color. Warm tones appear in the red, orange and yellow side of the spectrum, with the cool tones appearing on the opposite side of the color wheel.

Monochromatic Color Schemes

The monochromatic color scheme uses variations in lightness and saturation of a single color. This scheme tend to look clean, elegant while producing a soothing effect. The primary color can be integrated with neutral colors such as black, white, or gray. The downside of monochromatic color schemes is that the can sometimes lack contrast and appear less vibrant than some other schemes.



Monochromatic scheme with a blue base


Monochromatic scheme with a red base

Analogous Color Schemes

The analogous color scheme uses colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. One color is set as the dominant color, the other add richness. The downside again is that there can sometimes be a lack of contrast.



Analogous scheme with a blue base

Complimentary Color Scheme

The complementary color scheme is made of two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. This scheme is very successful for creating strong contrast and for drawing attention.



Complementary scheme with a light green base

Split Complementary Scheme

The split complementary scheme is a variation of the standard complementary scheme. Take one color on the wheel and two colors adjacent to its complementary. The advantage of this scheme over a complimentary scheme is that it can be a little more sophisticated while still keeping a strong visual contrast.



Split Complementary scheme with a light green base

Triadic Color Schemes

The triadic color scheme uses three colors equally spaced around the color wheel. It’s great for providing balance, richness and contrast, although not as much contrast as the complimentary scheme.



Triadic scheme with a blue base

Tips for Using These Color Schemes

1. Choose one color to be used in larger amounts than others. You will get a horrible mess if you try to use equal amounts of every color. Be selective about your main or base color and then use the other colors to add interest.


The By The Pond site uses a lovely dark-blue grey with complimentary mustard text and highlights.

2. If the colors look too gaudy, subdue them.

3. There are several tools online for creating color schemes, my favorite is Kuler. It allows you to play with the colour wheel and choose the color schemes discussed here with one click.

4. *updated* Black, white and grey can be used in all of these color schemes. You could think of them as neutrals that can be used with any color scheme.

All colors are influenced by the colors placed around them. The symbol below is the same shade of red on the left and right, but the background color dramatically changes the look. The color scheme on the left is extremely hard on the eye, while on the right the colors work well together and have an uplifting feel.


Inspiration from Nature

If you’re looking for some inspiration and guidance for picking colours, turn off the computer and go outside. Mother Nature provides the best color combinations. Look at animals, plants, birds and take note of the amazing color schemes. Take photographs of them and keep them in your morgue file. Color Lovers has an excellent article on butterfly color schemes and I’ve written in the past about how to create color palettes from photographs in Photoshop and color schemes from paintings in Kuler.

Things to think about when using color in your designs:

1. Are the colors in your design working well together or are they hard on the eye? Is it difficult to read the text on the background?

2. Is your design too cool or too warm for what you want to convey? You can cool down overheated designs with small hints of cool colors (and vice versa).

3. Does your design work in black and white? If it does then a bit of color experimentation can really bring your design to its full potential.

4. If you’re designing for the web (or designing apps), have you thought about how color affects usability?

Color theory is a huge, huge topic and we’ll be back to visit it plenty more times. For now I hope this has been a helpful overview and that you’ve found the series on principles of design useful. Thanks for reading.

Do you have a natural flair for picking colors? What tools or methods do you use to help with picking colors?

  • Anonymous

    What about white, black, and gray? Can they only be used with a monochromatic color scheme? If not, are there any “rules” on using them with the “colorful” colors?

    • Hi Anonymous. Yes you are absolutely right to ask about black, white and grey and I’ve updated the post to mention them. Basically you could consider black, white and grey as bonus or neutrals that can be used with ANY of the color schemes. So for example, as well as using the colors in a complimentary scheme, you can use black and white freely.

  • Primary Colors

    Since “primary colors” is essentially an ambiguous term, it might be better to state that you use the RYB color model (before the sentence “The three primary colors are red, blue and yellow.”). Some people might wonder why your primary colors are red, blue and yellow in this article compared to the standard RGB that they’ve been exposed to (assuming they haven’t been into colors in design and art as such).

    • Hi Primary Colors. Good point on the RGB versus RYB. In this case I was talking about the “traditional” primary colors. I will be writing in future posts about RGB and CMYK color modes and will come back to this in much more detail.

  • ravi_k47

    i love this article :)
    thanks for such a wonderful one ||/

  • ravi_k47

    i always look closely at the TV advertisements, banners, posters and hoardings

  • nick y

    I love all your principle of design blogs (mainly because I am a developer in need of a design sense) but this one is excellent! I can’t wait to read more about color theory. oh and Kuler is pretty amazing.

  • Primary Colors

    “Tradiotional” or not, the term “primary colors” is not something that’s scientifically defined to include only a certain set of colors. It’s only through common convention that some are designated as primary colors, again the colors designated as primary colors depend on the context. That’s why I just requested that you make it unambiguous, even if by just including “The traditional primary colors are RYB.” (although the meaning of “traditional” is a bit ambiguous too (traditional to whom or when or where). :)

    • Primary Colors, I don’t think “traditional” is an ambiguous term at all. It is a standard term used in colour theory to describe Red, Yellow, Blue, colours that painters have been using for hundreds of years, long before CMYK print processes and colour screens.

      In this post I was talking about the color wheel, the backbone of which is red, yellow and blue.

  • tom_dot

    The thing I can never quite wrap my head around is that no-one actually ever uses these color schemes. I keep reading about the same color schemes, and the same theory, but you rarely see it in practice except in the most extremely modified form.

    Even the simple Duck Website example doesn’t match the system. It’s totally not complementary… and a scheme that was complimentary would look horrible.
    There seems to be almost no blue in that grey. If I was making a color scheme by-ear I’d probably try choosing grey to go with yellow/orange. But none of the schemes in Colourlovers or Kuler

    I think I’m missing an important step/element/thought process somewhere.

  • Great article! I would love to see an article in the future about how color affects sales and marketing, especially in regards to web sites.

  • tom_dot

    Sorry, that line should read: “But none of the schemes in Colourlovers or Kuler would seem to suggest a orange + grey mix.”

    Is there any way you could walk through the process of creating a palette in more detail. I’ve seen lots of articles on the internet pointing to kuler and saying: stick in a color, use the color rules, get a good theme. But then the results they show seem to be totally different. I want to see how people actually do it.

  • Daquan Wright

    Very nice assortment of images and loved the color scheme for the duck website, certainly got something out of it.

  • Eric_HE

    thanks!what you telling is very useful to me

  • i hoPe thaT ThiS wiLL worK iN ouR assigNmenT in T.L.E
    guD luCk to meh .. ^^

Get the latest in Front-end, once a week, for free.