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The basics of color theory in design

January 7, 2019

Ever wondered how a designer comes up with a color palette for your brand? How do they know which colors fit your brand and which colors work well together? The answer is very simple. We know a thing or two about color theory.


Brand styling is a lot about colors. They’re a powerful asset for every brand if you know how to use them right. Colors influence how people perceive your brand. They communicate your brand values and help you to create visually pleasing designs.


Color theory is behind all this. By following the guidelines of color theory you can learn how to use colors. You’ll find out how we perceive colors so you can influence what people think about your brand. Furthermore, these guidelines teach you how to mix and match colors.


But that’s not all, color theory also becomes handy when working with a designer, editing photos or creating your own graphics.


What you need to know before creating a color palette for your brand. The basic guidelines of color theory can help you to mix and match your brand colors | thatistheday.com #colortheory #brandstyling #colorpalette

Ever wondered how a designer comes up with a color palette for your brand? How do they know which colors fit your brand and which colors work well together? The answer is very simple. We know a thing or two about color theory | thatistheday.com #colortheory #colors #colorpalette


Color wheel


The first step to understanding colors is to learn and memorize the color wheel. The color wheel we use today is based on the three primary colors Red, Yellow, and Blue.


Primary colors


The three colors Red, Yellow, and Blue can’t be mixed by any other colors. That’s why the color wheel starts with these colors. En revanche, you can create any other color by mixing the primary colors.


primary colors | red | blue | yellow | color theory


Secondary colors


By mixing two primary colors you’ll get one of the three secondary colors. The secondary colors are Green, Orange, and Purple. For example, when combining Yellow and Blue you’ll get Green.


secondary colors | color theory


Tertiary colors


Tertiary colors are mixed with one primary and one secondary color.


tertiary colors | color theory


These three together build the color wheel. It’s the starting point for everything we will do because it helps us to see the colors in relation to each other. Once you know how to mix colors you can apply this knowledge to photo editing and creating images for web and print.


color wheel | color theory


Color models


This brings us straight to color models. There are several color models which each have a different function. Understanding which model is used where helps you to create the best quality for each design.




The RGB model refers to how we see colors. We all see colors as light. When there’s no light we see it as Black. Much light means White. That’s why screens work with this model. The more color/ light you add the brighter it’s perceived. We also call this the additive color model. When you add all three colors (Red, Green, and Blue) you’ll have white light. You can use the RGB model for everything digital.


Online you’ll often use a Hex color code. This six-digit code is nothing else than the RGB model. Every pair of digits stands for a different value of Red, Green or Blue.




With the CMYK model, it’s the other way around. You start with White. This means that there’s no color at all. Once you start adding the colors it gets darker and darker. When all colors are added together you have black. CMYK is a subtractive color model. The colors in this model are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key = Black. This model is perfect for printers because out of the four colors you can create a huge range of colors. Everything you want to print needs to created in CMYK mode.


To mention this quickly here. You’ve probably heard about Pantone Colors. These are used for print. Pantone created a color matching system which ensures you’ll always receive the same result when printing a specific color. Colors will often look different depending on the screen you work with. By picking a Pantone color you’re sure that it’ll always look the same printed.


Color meaning


Every color has a specific meaning to most of us. We perceive Red as a sign of urgency or something we have to pay attention to. But we also connect Red with love and passion.


Not everybody perceives color in the same way. Other cultures might interpret a color different from how you do. But the general meaning of colors is universally understood. We can use colors to communicate information and influence how people react to what they see.


Color psychology plays a huge role in brand styling. We want to use colors which fit our brand and are in line with our message. That’s why you have to understand the meaning of colors before you choose your brand colors.


Color properties


There’s a handful of terms designers are always throwing around. Understanding color properties can help you to work better with colors and create better graphics. Let’s get these terms straight.


Color temperature


If you take a look at the color wheel above you can see that you can divide it into two parts, warm and cold colors. Warm colors are Red or Orange. Blue and Green are cold colors.


This can help you to pick your brand colors depending on what’s a better fit, warm or cold. It can also help to achieve balance inside your design. Add a soft, cold color to balance out a bolder and warmer color like Red.




Hue means nothing else than the pure form of a color. You only have a pure color if there’s no Black or White or any other color added to it.




With the saturation, you indicate how pure your color is. Desaturated means your color is less pure or less intense.




You can get several tints from each color by adding more or less White.




And you get several shades of each color by adding more or less Black.


shades and tints | color theory




Tones can be created by adding White, Black or Color to a pure color.




Neutrals are Black, White, and Gray or any form (shade, tint, tone) of these three colors.

Related post: 6 colors to use instead of black


Color harmonies


Now it’s time to pay special attention because color theory can teach you how to combine colors. When you’re creating a color palette for your brand it’s often hard to decide which colors work well together. But with the following strategies, you can find out how colors stand in relation to each other. This will give you several options to combine colors in a harmonious way and achieve a visually appealing design.




With the complementary strategy, you pick two colors which are opposite of each other on the color wheel. This results in the greatest contrast you can achieve.


complementary color harmony | color theory




The analogous strategy combines three colors which are next to each other on the color wheel. This combination feels very natural because we often find different tones of one color in flowers or leaves e. g..


analogous color combination | color theory




For this strategy, you pick three colors from the wheel to form a triangular shape between them. The colors all have the same distance between each other which results in a very harmonious combination.


triadic color combination | color theory




A monochrome combination uses several tones of one color. You can create a monochrome color palette by using different shades and tints of your color. These combinations are often used in minimal design because they’re very subtle and less distracting as others.


monochrome color combination | color theory


Related post: 3 color strategies to define your brand colors

Brand colors


To round this all up let’s talk about brand colors. When creating your color palette you can now use the color theory guidelines. A brand color palette consists of 3 parts.


Primary colors


In general, you pick one, two at most, main brand colors which you use for all your visuals.


Accent colors


Further, you add two or three accent colors. These are used, as the name says, to set accents. They help you to build a harmonious palette, create contrast and balance in your visuals.




Last but not least, you always add some neutrals. You’ll need colors for backgrounds or text. One light and one dark neutral color will do the trick.

Related post: The basics of good design

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