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Deep breath. This is a HUGE topic and cannot be effectively covered in a single post, but I want to touch on the basics to get a handle on how color is used in design.  You have likely heard some catchphrases or are familiar with some basic concepts — warm and cool colors, tints vs. shades and so on — but let’s scratch a little deeper than the surface.

Color Relationships

Color shapes are based on the color wheel and looks at how different colors interact with others on the wheel.  There are four main color relationships that are often referred to, though there are certainly more, including split-complementary and tetradic among others.  The main ones are outlined below:

  • Monochromatic
    Monochromatic color schemes are derived from a single base hue and are extended using its shades, tones and tints. Tints are achieved by adding white, shades by adding black, and tones by adding gray.
  • Analogous
    Analogous color schemes use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, with one being the dominant color, which tends to be a primary or secondary color, and two on either side complementing (which tend to be tertiary).
  • Complementary
    Complementary colors are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. When combined, they produce black, or if colored light (rather than pigment) is used, they produce white. When placed next to each other, they create the strongest contrast for those particular two colors.
  • Triadic
    A triadic color scheme uses colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. The easiest way to place them on the wheel is by using a triangle of equal sides. Triadic color schemes tend to be quite vibrant, even when using pale or unsaturated versions of hues, offers a higher degree of contrast while at the same time retains the color harmony.

Hues, Tints, Shades and Tones

Do you know the difference between a hue and a color?  Trick question; a hue is any color on the color wheel. Hues are the starting point for tints, shades and tones. As referenced earlier in the monochromatic color scheme, a hue can be altered by adding black, white or gray to it. Note that this does not include mixing two colors together. Not surprisingly, tints and shades affect the “mood” of the color. Tones, meanwhile, are slightly more complex, subtle and sophisticated.

  • Tints: Sometimes referred to as a pastel, tints are any color with white added.
  • Shades: A shade is any color with black added.
  • Tones: A tone is created by adding both black and white (a.k.a. gray).

Warm and Cool Colors

The distinction between “warm” and “cool” colors has been important for centuries. It is no longer commonly referenced in modern color science, but is still frequently used in practices today.

Historically, it is related to the observed contrast in landscape light, between the “warm” colors associated with daylight or sunset and the “cool” colors associated with a gray or overcast day. Warm colors are generally known to be hues from red through yellow, while cool colors are often known to be the hues from blue green through blue violet. White, black and gray are considered to be neutral, though grays are sometimes included as cool colors.

In paintings or photographs, warm colors are said to appear more active, while cool colors tend to recede.  Within the field of interior design, warm colors tend to elicit feelings of activity or liveliness, while cool colors have a more calming and relaxing response.


  • Warm colors are vivid and energetic, and tend to advance in space.
  • Cool colors give an impression of calm, and create a soothing impression.

Psychology of Color

I will begin by stating that in the design world, colors are extremely important, yet they are simultaneously often overstated.  What of this paradox? The problem lies in the fact that people want to apply universal truths to areas where they fundamentally do not belong.  There are certainly commonly accepted notions of how color affects mood, but color is too dependent on personal experiences to be universally translated to specific feelings. In other words, you can’t truthfully state that blue means sad.

Here are some examples of overstatements that should be digested carefully:

Green is the color of nature. It symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility. Green has strong emotional correspondence with safety. Green has great healing power. It is the most restful color for the human eye; it can improve vision. Green suggests stability and endurance. Green is directly related to nature, so you can use it to promote “green” products.
Blue is the color of the sky and sea. It is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom,confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven. Blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It slows human metabolism and produces a calming effect. Blue is strongly associated with tranquility and calmness. In heraldry, blue is used to symbolize piety and sincerity.

There are elements there that do hold water, though any given individual may wrinkle an eyebrow if the statements are assumed as absolute truths.  While color is often oversold, it cannot be denied that color affects our moods and perceptions. There is in fact, a mountain of well-documented research on how color is perceived and how we as humans react to it. Our brains are extremely responsive to visual stimuli, with color being a major factor in how we respond to that stimuli. Both consciously and sub consciously, we take some meaning from color.

This may seem like a contradiction, but put simply, color theory is just that, theory.  There are deep truths but there are hardly absolutes.  Designers should keep color psychology in mind to help make their designs resonate, but use it with a grain of salt.


Color is important. It is not everything. Color is complex. Color is also just fun.  In design, there is a whole lot of room to play and experiment with color. In general, the goal should be achieving color harmony; that is, something that is pleasing to the eye. Color can be used to engage the viewer and create an inner sense of order and balance in the visual experience and can figuratively breathe life into a design, but it is worth remembering too, that 1 in 12 people are color blind, and good design can still be achieved in color’s absence.

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