A Guide to the Rules of Colour Theory

If you were to take one lesson away from Design School 101, it would be to trust in the colour theory. Colour is an omnipresent part of the world we live in, and be it in fashion, print, or web design, its importance should never be overlooked. The ‘colour theory’ is a body of practical guidance used to help designers manage colour mixing and the visual effects of specific colour combinations. When it comes to colour, what evokes a reaction in one person can evoke an entirely different reaction in another. The science behind the colour theory tries to simplify this by studying the hues associated with particular groups of colours.

The history of the colour wheel

The colour wheel was first invented by Sir Isaac Newton, used to display how primary colours blend to create distinct hues. A traditional colour wheel consists of 12 hues created by mixing the three primary colours of red, yellow, and blue. Secondary colours include green, orange, and purple, and tertiary colours include blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange. The colour theory is generally separated into four harmonious colour combination theories:

  • Two colours opposite each other on the colour wheel – This is referred to as the ‘compound’ or ‘complementary’ colour scheme. A variation of this is ‘split complementary’, which uses two colours adjacent to the base colour
  • Three colours equally spaced around the colour wheel forming a triangle – This is referred to as the ‘triadic colour scheme’
  • Four colours forming a rectangle on the colour wheel – This is referred to as the ‘tetradic colour scheme’ and works best when one colour is dominant
  • Colours next to each other on the colour wheel – This is referred to as the ‘analogous colour scheme’, and works particularly well with monochromatic selections or base colours.

While there are many more theories worth testing, these four are a good choice for beginners as you can rarely go wrong. They base themselves on the methods by which colour is reproduced – additive and subtractive.

The components of colour

Defining colour is not as simple as stating yellow, blue, or red. There are many different colours you could refer to as yellow, all with different shades, tints, saturations, and hues, making hundreds of variations of the colour ‘yellow’. There are three primary components used to define colour:

  • Hue – This represents the base colour itself, and is typically referred to in degrees. Yellow would appear between 50 and 60 degrees on the colour wheel
  • Saturation – Usually referred to as a percentage between 0 and 100%, saturation is a representation of how rich a colour is. Low saturation results in less colour and a dullness that eventually becomes grey when fully saturated
  • Brightness – Typically expressed as a percentage between 0 and 100%, brightness determines how bright a colour is. At 100%, yellow would be at its most ‘perfect’ yellow, while lowering the brightness level will darken the shade.

A guide to using colour theory

The better understanding you have of colour theories, the better designer you will be. As a guide you should:

  • Know the colour wheel well and understand colour psychology – For example, red represents love, energy, and intensity, while yellow gives a feeling of joy, intellect, and attention. Warm colours exude passion, happiness, and enthusiasm, while cool colours give a sense of calm and professionalism
  • Know what to try and when – Start with analogue colours which give a feeling of harmony and tranquility, yet offer austerity when used well. If it’s not working, turn to complementary colours, split complementary, triad, and finally monochrome
  • Get to know hues, saturation, brightness, and colour gamut – Familiarise yourself with colour wheel positionings, digital colour models, the richness and temperature of colour, and the potential colours a system can reproduce
  • Know your audience – It’s vital that you match your audience with the right colours, particularly when looking to market something. It is said that 90% of snap judgements made about products can be based on colour alone! If customers turn to you because of your purity, truthfulness, and peacefulness, look to use white and surrounding hues. To stimulate appetite or enthusiasm, opt for orange. If your audience requires a feeling of calm and loyalty, blue is the perfect choice.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment – With the online colour tools available today, there’s no reason why you can’t play around with colour. Some great tools include Adobe Colour CC and Colour Hunter
  • Seek further guidance – Browse other websites and hang on to the flyers that capture your attention to see what colour theories work within your industry. Many large companies hire seasoned colour professionals to establish the psychology behind their advertising, so pinch some ideas to help you alone
  • NEVER forget readability – Never! When working with text, there is no reason why you have to stick to only black on white. Colour can place emphasis on your message, but it should in no way compromise the readability of your words. Pay attention to the relative values and saturation of colours when combining both colour, background, and type, and ensure the contrast is there.

Colour systems in print and media

When we mix colours using paint or the printing process, the subtractive method of colour mixing is used. In print it’s referred to as the CMYK method, and means that one begins with white, and as colour is added, the new colour gets darker. The end result is black. If working with CMYK, be certain you open any new document in CMYK colour mode to ensure your approved colours. Follow these rules of thumb and you’ll be designing like a pro in no time!