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Color Theory in Graphic Design

Color is a powerful tool in graphic design. It can be used to attract attention, organize content, emphasize elements, evoke emotion and help a design look aesthetically pleasing. But what colors should be used? In order to choose the right colors and color combinations, it is important that the graphic designer have a basic understanding of color theory. Color theory is the study of color in art and design, their relationships with each other and principles used to create harmonious color schemes.

The Color Wheel

The concept of the color wheel was invented by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 when he bent the color spectrum, or the range of all visible light, into the shape of a circle. It is a circular diagram used to visually show the relationships between colors and can be used to logically choose color schemes. For the purpose of this article, I am going to use a simplified version of the color wheel by John McWade of Before and After Magazine.

primary-coloursPrimary Colors

Primary colors are red, blue and yellow. These three colors are the most basic colors on the color wheel. They cannot be made from any other colors but all other colors on the color wheel are made from them. They are commonly used together to attract attention, such as children’s products or at a circus.

secondary-colorsSecondary Colors

Secondary colors are green, orange and purple. They are formed by mixing equal amounts of the two primary colors that are beside them on the color wheel. For example, green is made from mixing blue and yellow. They can be used together to create a nicely balanced color scheme.

tertiary-colorsTertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple and blue-purple. They are formed by mixing a primary color and a secondary color together. For example, blue-green is made from mixing blue and green. Tertiary colors help create a wider color palette.


Tints and Shades

Lighter versions of colors are formed by adding white and are called tints. Darker versions are formed by adding black and are called shades. This is illustrated on the color wheel by adding two inner rings for tints and two outer rings for shades. The middle ring is the hue.

monocromatic-colorsMonochromatic Colors

Monochromatic colors are colors with variations in tint and shade, such as green, light green and dark green. Although there is very little variety in these colors, they can be used to create a simple, clean and elegant color scheme with minimum contrast.

analogous-colorsAnalogous Colors

Analogous colors are beside or near each other on the color wheel, such as blues and blue-greens. This color scheme is similar to monochromatic colors but with more range. They have low contrast but work well together because they have common undertones.

complementary-colorsComplementary Colors

Complementary colors are two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, such as blue-purple and orange. They provide maximum color contrast and work particularly well when a warm color is paired with a cool color.

split-complementary-colorsSplit Complementary Colors

Split complementary colors is a color and two colors adjacent to its complementary color, such as green-yellow, purple and red. These colors provide high contrast without the strong tension of the complementary scheme.

triadic-colorsTriadic Colors

Triadic colors are three colors equally spaced around the color wheel. They are not as contrasting as complementary colors but look more balanced. Primary colors and secondary colors are both examples of triadic color schemes.

tetradic-colorsTetradic Colors

Tetradic colors are two pairs of complementary colors, also known as double complementary, such as blue-purple, green, yellow-orange and red. It may look like too much color if all four colors are used in equal amounts. Therefore one or two colors should be dominant.


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