What Is Color Theory?

Posted on August 1, 2022 | Updated on May 31, 2023

Color is a powerful communication tool. It evokes different emotions and can influence our mood and behavior. Yet when you explore the fundamentals behind it, you can understand how people perceive color — and the effects that occur when you mix, match or contrast them. 

Understanding the basis of color is key to comprehending color theory. 

What Is Color Theory?

The color theory comprises rules and guidelines designers apply when communicating with users through appealing color schemes. Designers will choose the best colors by using a color wheel and considering the psychological and cultural effects they have. 

The color theory comes in handy for designers since there are infinite colors and combinations. Without color theory, it can be difficult to decide which color scheme works best for your audience.

That’s why it’s crucial to choose your colors wisely.

Why Color Is Important for Branding

When your eyes see an object, your eyes will send signals to your brain, which tells you what color you’re perceiving. On a psychological level, people associate the colors they see with different meanings. 

For instance, red can be perceived as danger or love, while green means growth or nature. Therefore, picking the perfect color combination is what brands must focus on. Why?

Color is the first impression when deciding whether to buy a product. It’s also one of the main influential factors in the purchase decision. In fact, about 75% of those decisions are made based on the color of a product’s packaging.

Color Wheel Basics

The color wheel consists of various colors, including:

  • Primary colors: red, yellow, blue
  • Secondary colors: orange, green, purple
  • Tertiary colors: A mix of primary and secondary colors.

If you draw a line down the center of the color wheel, one side has warm colors while the other has cool colors. Warm colors generally evoke energy, action and brightness. Meanwhile, cool colors identify with calmness, peace and serenity.

How You Get Different Shades of Colors

With the various colors you see in the world, you’re probably wondering how you get them from the twelve colors of the color wheel.

That is where tints, shades and tones play a role in different colors. Simply put, they all have a part in color or hue variations:

  • Tint: When you add white to a hue. For example, red and white make pink.
  • Shade: When black is added to the hue. For example, red and black equal burgundy.
  • Tone: When black and white are used to make gray to darken the original color and make it appear less intense.

Color Schemes

Designers come up with color schemes for marketing materials using the color wheel:

  • Monochromatic: Uses a single color with variations of tints, shades and tones. A monochromatic color scheme is gentle on the eyes and creates a soothing effect.
  • Analogous: Uses side-by-side colors on the color wheel. One color is dominant while the others support it — making it visually appealing.
  • Complementary: Consists of two contrasting colors. For instance, your dominant color could be red, while the accent color is green. Using complementary color schemes works well for attracting attention.

When choosing color schemes, they must reflect the designer’s goal and brand personality. That’s why designers will apply color theory — it positively enhances the psychological effect on users.

Therefore, you can make better branding decisions. For instance, you can decide which color to use for your logo. Or, you can apply the psychology behind your color choices for your website.

Either way, it helps to decide which color to use based on how you want your audience to feel when interacting with your product or brand. 

Applying Color Theory in Your Designs

Color is one of the many tools designers love to experiment with in their projects. On the other hand, it can also be tricky to master. 

Luckily, color theory can give you a good foundation to start with when implementing a new design. 

Keep practicing creating color combinations and you’ll be able to master a skill that a professional visual designer possesses.

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About The Author

Cooper Adwin is the Assistant Editor of Designerly Magazine. With several years of experience as a social media manager for a design company, Cooper particularly enjoys focusing on social and design news and topics that help brands create a seamless social media presence. Outside of Designerly, you can find Cooper playing D&D with friends or curled up with his cat and a good book.

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