Design Theory: Colors

Color is a powerful force that influences the actions we take on a daily basis. I’m not suggesting that colors have magical powers, but rather that they are used with repetition in society until the meaning becomes attached to the color. Once established, those meanings can be used to predict the psychology of viewers and influence decisions they make. Ever wonder why most banks use the color blue in their logos and branding? Blue has come to represent stability and trust. By using that color the banks are able to predict that you will trust them

Color Wheel & Color Schemes

The color wheel was originally credited to Sir Isaac Newton who joined the colors in the visible spectrum together to form a wheel. The color wheel lays out the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors in relationship to one another. This is useful in visualizing color combinations, especially for people starting out with this. The color wheel shown here has the primary colors in the center, the tertiary colors in the middle ring and the range of colors in the spectrum in the outside ring.

On way to choose color schemes is to focus on the primary, secondary, or tertiary color relationships. Choosing blue and red, for example, would be pairing primary colors. Using purple and orange would be pairing secondary colors together. Using teal and red-orange together would be pairing tertiary. Beyond that you can also choose analogous colors, or colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Yellow and orange would be an analogous pairing and would feel very much similar. You could also use colors with high contrast by choosing complementary colors, or colors that are directly across from one another on the color wheel. The contrast brings a level of drama to the combination.
Color pairing, or color combinations are not an exact science. There aren’t two colors that don’t “go” together. The goal of pairing colors is to choose hues that represent the overall mood and meaning of your design.

Color Meaning

Color meanings are specific to cultures and become embedded in our minds. Take this example:

If you were driving in a car in the United States and saw someone holding this sign up you would instinctively stop. Even though this isn’t a typical traffic sign, the color red has been used repeatedly in stop signs and traffic lights to indicate that you should stop. Within the context of driving your car the color red has a specific meaning. Out of that context the meaning may be different.

More general color meanings can be broken down into three ranges of colors: warm, cool, and neutral.

Warm Colors

From Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color, by Smashing Magazine

Warm colors include red, orange, and yellow, and variations of those three colors. These are the colors of fire, of fall leaves, and of sunsets and sunrises, and are generally energizing, passionate, and positive.

Red and yellow are both primary colors, with orange falling in the middle, which means warm colors are all truly warm and aren’t created by combining a warm color with a cool color. Use warm colors in your designs to reflect passion, happiness, enthusiasm, and energy.

Cool Colors

From Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color, by Smashing Magazine

Cool colors include green, blue, and purple, are often more subdued than warm colors. They are the colors of night, of water, of nature, and are usually calming, relaxing, and somewhat reserved.

Blue is the only primary color within the cool spectrum, which means the other colors are created by combining blue with a warm color (yellow for green and red for purple). Greens take on some of the attributes of yellow, and purple takes on some of the attributes of red. Use cool colors in your designs to give a sense of calm or professionalism.

Neutral Colors

From Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color, by Smashing Magazine

Neutral colors often serve as the backdrop in design. They’re commonly combined with brighter accent colors. But they can also be used on their own in designs, and can create very sophisticated layouts. The meanings and impressions of neutral colors are much more affected by the colors that surround them than are warm and cool colors.

Quick Guide to Color Meanings

From Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color, by Smashing Magazine

While the information contained here might seem just a bit overwhelming, color theory is as much about the feeling a particular shade evokes than anything else. But here’s a quick reference guide for the common meanings of the colors discussed above:

  • Red: Passion, Love, Anger
  • Orange: Energy, Happiness, Vitality
  • Yellow: Happiness, Hope, Deceit
  • Green: New Beginnings, Abundance, Nature
  • Blue: Calm, Responsible, Sadness
  • Purple: Creativity, Royalty, Wealth
  • Black: Mystery, Elegance, Evil
  • Gray: Moody, Conservative, Formality
  • White: Purity, Cleanliness, Virtue
  • Brown: Nature, Wholesomeness, Dependability
  • Tan or Beige: Conservative, Piety, Dull
  • Cream or Ivory: Calm, Elegant, Purity

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