Color theory is one of my absolute favorite topics to nerd out on because it is a fusion of art, science, nature, and psychology. What a combo! It explains how humans perceive color; and the visual effects of how colors mix, match, or contrast with each other.
IMO though, the most intriguing aspect of color theory involves the messages and emotions specific colors communicate; and the methods used to replicate color.
Why does it matter?
Color is the most immediate way of creating a positive first impression both online and IRL. People decide whether or not they like a product in 90 seconds or less. And 90% of that decision is based solely on color. In other words, color is very important.
Color communicates with your audience on an emotional level while copy and content can only communicate on a mental/physical level. Color sets the mood, attracts attention, and makes a statement. Depending on the colors you choose, you could create a websiteorproduct packaging that evokes loyalty, whimsy, or elegance.
The right colors will also help you stand out from others in your industry and increase your revenues. If better, mindful branding leads to more client attraction, which leads to increased revenue, that means a mindful color scheme can also mean more money in your pocket. Like I said, color is very important.
While color is your most powerful design element, the challenge is to use color while giving your design (whether it’s your website or a new product) a unified and polished look. To understand how to reach this balance, you need to understand the basics of color theory.
Understanding Color Theory
The beginning of understanding color theory comes from understanding how colors relate to each other. Once you know how they vibe, it’s easier to see which colors play well together and which ones are a no-go. To start understanding this, you’ll need to know a little bit about the color wheel and color context and a lot about color harmony.
Let me break it down for you...
The Color Wheel
You’re probably most familiar with this first concept. I’m sure you’ve seen posters for the color wheel in your elementary school art class, so it’s a pretty easy place to start for color theory.
Basically, the color wheel is an illustration of the logically arranged color hues around a circle and shows the relationships between primary colors (red, yellow, blue), secondary colors (green, orange, purple), and tertiary colors (colors formed by mixing primary and secondary).
While there are many different variations of the color wheel, the standard idea of the wheel is the basis for color theory.
This next one is tricky, but don't fret! It’s one of the more complex aspects of color theory so you should be aware of it, but we’re not going to worry too much about it for the topic.
Color context is all about how color behaves in relation to other colors and shapes. That means the way we perceive color changes depending on what is around it. <deep breath> You can do hard things.
For example, even though the color in the inner circle is the same throughout each set of three, it can seem to change appearance for us when we swap out different background colors.
This final category is what you’ll really want to focus on as you’re choosing a mindful color palette.
Color harmony is all about how to combine colors to create something that is pleasing to the eye. It’s what can either immediately engage a potential client or completely turn them off.
But you can’t just start throwing colors together all willy nilly! There’s a rhyme and reason behind how colors work together and color harmony is how you can understand that balance. Here are the six schemes that makeup color harmony:
Complementary colors are ones that are opposite each other on the wheel. The high contrast between complementary colors is what makes them look so vibrant when paired together. It’s best not to use them all over your branding, but they come in handy when you want something particular to stand out.
Analogous colors are the ones next to each other on the wheel. The type of color scheme is used to create peaceful feeling designs like palettes found in nature. When you use analogous colors, choose one to dominate, a second to support, and a third for accent.
Triadic colors are three colors evenly spaced around the wheel like an equilateral triangle. This scheme is used to cast a feeling of vibrancy. If you use this scheme, make sure you’ve balanced them correctly on the color wheel and have one color dominate while the other two are used as accents.
A split-complementary scheme is a variation of the complementary scheme, but instead of using only one color as a compliment, you use two colors next to each other on the wheel to compliment your main color. By using this scheme, you create a little less tension than the complementary scheme. Because of this, it’s a good choice to start with.
The rectangle or tetradic color scheme uses four colors arranged into two pairs of complementary colors. Because it’s made of two complementary pairs, a tetradic scheme can be overwhelmingly vibrant. If you choose to use this scheme, pick one dominant color and let the others support it.
The square scheme is similar to the rectangle, but all four colors are evenly spaced around the wheel…like a square. Use it like you would the rectangle scheme by choosing one dominant color and the others as support.
How to choose a color palette
Alrighty, now it’s time to put all those color schemes to work, but it’s not as easy as just picking one color and running with it. The colors you use choose can affect someone’s first impression of your brand which is why you need to think past just using your favorite color. You need to think about the perception potential clients or customers will have of your brand and how they will interact with it.
The main goal is to find a color palette that enhances your mission.
There are many different aspects and processes to work through to get the perfect palette. So as you begin your brainstorming, here are couple of steps to follow to make sure you find the right colors:
Step 1: It's a vibe
Before you actually start searching and investigating the colors for your blog, your first step is to narrow in on a mood you want to set. By doing this, you’re setting the tone for the rest of the design. Knowing how you want your audience to feel when they come to your site or view your products will help you make each design decision from here on out.
Take some time and write down adjectives that describe your brand. Calm and inviting? Exciting and energized? Strong and empowered? Reliable? Contemplative?
Once you have an idea of the mood you want to set, you can start getting a general idea of what colors can help convey that mood. These aren’t strict rules to follow, but it’s good to be aware that each color has its own connection to evoking specific emotions.
For example, just because you’re running a financial blog doesn’t mean you need everything to be green because it makes your reader think about money. If that were true, all financial blogs would be green and nobody wants that.
Here’s a chart of color psychology to help you understand how your color choice can affect your readers:
Step 2: Look to existing elements
The second step is to take inventory of all the design resources you currently have. Depending on the project, that could mean a logo or other pre-existing branding, graphics, and other images. You might find that a photo can be the inspiration for your whole color scheme.
Pulling these elements together can help you start to see patterns and color schemes that might already exist within your brand or how you need to change direction for your mood-setting, find new elements, or alter your elements to fit your mood.
Step 3: Select a dominant color
As in most things, the concept of less is more is very relevant for design and your blog color scheme. Once you’ve decided on which color harmony you’d like to use for your project, it’s important to stick to the rule of choosing one dominant color with one or two accent colors. By doing this, you’ll stay away from a multi-colored mess of distraction. It will also help you create hierarchy, establish a unified design, and can direct your audience's eye to the most important information on your site and landing pages.
Best uses for your dominant color:
Call to Action button
Highlighting important information
Titles and headlines
Best uses for your accent color:
Current menu tab (to show the reader which tab they are on)
Highlighting secondary information
Step 4: Throw in some shades and tints
If you do find that you need an extra color or two, you might add in shades or tints of your dominant color. This will give you more variety to choose from while not taking away from the scheme you’ve set out to use.
Step 5: Test it out
As usual, there are many sites and tools online that can help you create the right color scheme. Here are a few to get you started:
Adobe Color- You can generate an entire color scheme from one base color with Adobe Color. All you need to do is upload a photo to start extracting colors. It also integrates with Creative Suite apps and gives you downloadable palettes for sharing.
Colors on the Web– This tool accepts a color in RGB and gives you a set of schemes based on different mathematical equations.
Coolors.co– With this tool you just hit the spacebar and it generates a new theme. Simply click the lock to lock a color in place and change the other colors around it. If you have one main brand color already this will be useful as you can put it in, lock it, then hit the spacebar for ideas of accent and complementary colors.
COLOURlovers- This site is a creative community where people from around the world create and share colors, palettes and patterns and discuss the latest trends.
Colorable– This tool checks the contrast between foreground and background color and allows you to adjust the colors.
What color palette fits your brand?
After breaking down the color basics with me, do you think you’re ready to find a mindful color palette that helps promote your brand and mission? Or do you think might need to redesign your website? Let me know how this post helped you with your design project in the comments and be sure to share with a friend in need!