Basic Color Theory for Designers
The first box of crayons you ever got probably had the basic eight: black, white, red, yellow, blue, purple, brown and orange. And at that time, this was all you needed-every shade in the world fit into one of these categories. And then you discovered pink and you had to get the new box with sixteen colors. Your palette expanded. Gray, peach, silver…before long, you asked for the big one. The mother of all crayons. The 64 count set with the sharpener on the box. Surely now you had them all; every color was in your grasp.
Color is an important form of nonverbal communication. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat, color influences our choices. Our perception of the world is affected by color. Likewise, the way the world perceives us is also affected by color. In fact, color, many times, is the most significant feature of an item. Designers, therefore, cannot afford to treat color lightly.
When mixing and matching, it helps to know a little color theory. Back to kindergarten and that box of eight crayons. One exercise you likely completed was a color wheel. The wheel is made by placing the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue, if you are working with ink) equidistant from each other on a circle. By blending the primaries you get the secondary colors: red and yellow produce orange; yellow and blue produce green; blue and red produce purple. Further blends of adjacent colors produce tertiary colors, and so on.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in color theory to know that relationships exist between adjacent, complementary, clashing colors. Our perception of color is affected by the surrounding colors as well as the proximity of other colors, and the amount of light. Furthermore, certain colors and combinations evoke emotional responses, which, depending on your background, you probably already intuitively know.
It is the designer’s business to create a visual experience which is pleasing to the eye. The elements of visual harmony are simple to explain, yet much more difficult to practice. Harmony engages the viewer and creates an inner sense of order, a balance. Combinations fail to harmonize if they are so bland as to bore the viewer. At the other extreme, chaotic, overdone combinations will be rejected as something which the mind cannot organize or understand. Simply put, the designer must strive to achieve the balance between under-stimulation and over-stimulation. This is harmony, a dynamic equilibrium.
Adjacent or analogous colors are those next to each other on the color wheel. These are harmonizing hues, since they each contain of a little of each other in themselves. They work well together, although they can appear washed out if they are too close to each other on the wheel. Adding black or white to one or both colors (creating tints or shades) can create higher contrast, solving this problem.
Complementary colors are separated by one color on a twelve part color wheel. While this combination of colors creates higher contrast, it also causes undesirable visual vibrations which puts physical strain on the eyes. This effect can be alleviated if complementary colors are separated on the page by at least one other color.
Direct opposites on the color wheel are called contrasting colors. (Sometimes direct opposites are also called complements.) When used carefully in designs, these combinations have high contrast and visibility along with a sense of harmony.
In choosing color combinations, designers often look to nature as a reference. This exercise delivers interesting and unusual combinations that can evoke similar responses to the actual experiences. While all colors have dual symbolism and have both positive and negative associations which change over time, their meaning in nature is constant and universal. Blue, as it is related to the sky on a clear day, will always create calm. Green, as the color of plants, will always bring new life to mind. Yellow is associated with the radiant brilliance of the sun, and so on. Designers are smart to take advantage of a color’s association with nature.
In addition to these basic formulas, designers must be aware of associations to colors due to cultural references, gender, age, and class differences. It is important to understand how the color has been used in a political and historical context as well as how it has been used in past and current trends. Religious and mythical implications can also effect the use of a color. Even linguistic usage (i.e. phrases like “in the red,” and “moody blues”) will affect how people view a color.