Designing with Color

A Comprehensive Guide to Color Theory in Graphic Design
Color Theory

Color is a complex element of design, and understanding it requires delving into the realm of Color Theory. Color Theory is a systematic study of color interactions, their combinations for visual impact, and their psychological and emotional significance. Vital components of color theory encompass the color wheel, color harmonies, color temperatures, and color mixing.

The Color Wheel

The Color Wheel

The color wheel serves as a foundational tool in color theory, illuminating relationships between colors and facilitating the creation of harmonious combinations. It comprises three primary color categories: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.


The Primary Colors: Red Blue Green
The Secondary Colors: Orange, Green, Violet/Purple
Tertiary Colors: Blue-green, Blue-Violet(purple), Red-Violet(purple), Red-Orange, Yellow-Green, and Yellow-Orange

Primary Colors

Primary Colors are the building blocks of color and cannot be obtained by mixing other hues. Red, Blue, and Yellow are the core primary colors and underpin the creation of all other shades. Primary colors play a pivotal role in subtractive color mixing, commonly utilized in art, painting, and printing.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors emerge from an equal blend of two primary colors. Traditionally, primary colors encompass Red, Blue, and Yellow, yielding three secondary colors: Green, Orange, and Purple (Violet).

  • Green results from the combination of Blue and Yellow.
  • Orange arises from mixing Yellow and Red.
  • Purple (Violet) manifests when Blue and Red unite.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors occupy an intermediate position, formed by mixing a primary color with an adjacent secondary color. Conventional color theory acknowledges six tertiary colors, bearing names derived from their parent primary and secondary hues. These are blue-green, yellow-green, red-orange, yellow-orange, blue-purple, and red-purple. Tertiary colors introduce diversity, subtle nuances, and complexity to artworks, designs, and creative projects.

Color Harmonies

Color harmonies involve pleasing color combinations applied across diverse creative disciplines, including art, design, fashion, and interior decorating. Proficiently employing color harmonies aids in crafting visually captivating and well-balanced compositions. The first and simplest harmony is Complementary Harmony.

Complementary Colors: Red + Green
Complementary Colors: Orange + Blue<br />
Complementary Colors: Orange + Blue

Complementary Color Harmony

Complementary colors are pairs situated opposite each other on the color wheel. Notable examples of complementary pairs are Red & Green, Blue & Orange, and Yellow & Purple (Violet). This harmony generates strong contrast, enhancing vibrancy and delineating colors. Recognizable brands like Taco Bell, Mountain Dew, Fanta, and the Los Angeles Lakers employ complementary color combinations in their logos.

Analogus: Violets(Purple)
Analogus: Oranges
Analogus: Greens

Analogous Color Harmony

Analogous Colors neighbor each other on the color wheel. They foster harmony and serenity in design compositions. Analogous color schemes can evoke various moods, contingent on specific colors selected within the scheme. Subtypes include Cool Analogous, Warm Analogous, and Monochromatic Analogous. Cool Analogous pairs blues and greens, invoking tranquility and nature. Warm Analogous combines red, orange, and yellow, conveying vibrancy and enthusiasm. Monochromatic Analogous adheres to a single hue, using different shades and tints to create sophistication.

Triadic Color Harmonies

Triadic Harmony

Tetradic Color Harmony

Tetradic Harmony

Split-Complementary Color Harmony<br />

Split-Complementary Harmony

Monochormatic Color Harmony

Monochromatic Harmony

Triadic Color Harmony

Triadic harmony employs three colors evenly spaced around the color wheel in a design or artwork. Designers and artists often opt for triadic color schemes to achieve balanced contrast and harmony. Triadic colors find utility in branding, marketing materials, interior design, and artwork, imbuing vibrancy and equilibrium in visual elements.


Tetradic Color Harmony

Tetradic Harmony, or double complementary harmony, integrates four colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. This harmony offers versatility, allowing for various color combinations and proportions while demanding balance and harmony. Tetradic color schemes are preferred when a bold and dynamic palette is desired, albeit challenging to execute successfully.



The split-complementary scheme, a variation of the complementary scheme, employs a base color alongside the two adjacent to its complement on the color wheel. This versatile scheme yields visually pleasing designs across graphic design, branding, interior decorating, and fashion.



A monochromatic palette consists of various shades, tints, and tones of a single color. One base color takes the lead, harmonizing variations for a cohesive design. Monochromatic schemes are frequently used in interior decorating, graphic design, and fashion to exude elegance, simplicity, and unity.

The color temperature: Cool and Warm

Color Temperature

Colors are categorized as warm or cool. Warm colors encompass red, orange, and yellow, while cool colors comprise blue, green, and purple. In technical terms, color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin (K) and categorizes light sources and colors along a warm-to-cool spectrum. Color temperature significantly influences the perception and atmosphere of designs and artworks, defining their emotional impact.



Understanding the color space you work in is crucial. In digital art and design, RGB (Red, Green, Blue) is the primary color space. In contrast, for print art and design, CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) is the standard. RGB employs additive color mixing, where intensities of red, green, and blue light combine to brighten colors. CMYK, on the other hand, utilizes subtractive color mixing, filtering out wavelengths of light from a white surface to create colors. The choice between RGB and CMYK depends on the medium and intended output.


The Psychology of Color

Color Psychology delves into how colors can influence human emotions, behaviors, and perceptions. Each color evokes distinct emotional responses and feelings. Warm colors like red and yellow energize and stimulate, while cool colors like blue and green instill calmness. Colors carry meanings; red signifies passion, love, or warning, while blue embodies sadness, dependability, and tranquility. Marketers leverage color to sway consumer decisions, while designers wield it to create atmospheres and convey messages.

From the color wheel to the psychology of color, these elements constitute the foundation of color theory, empowering designers to harness the language of color in their creative endeavors.