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How Understanding Color Theory can Help you Use Colors More Effectively


Take a moment and think about the emotion- happiness. Now, try to associate a colour with it. Did you just picture the colour yellow or orange? Don't be surprised; it's no mind-reading! It's long been known that colours carry emotional symbolism. Colours are much more than just an aspect that contributes to the visual beauty of a thing. It influences human perception, emotions, and experience!

Don't believe me? Let's play a game. Imagine that you are at the cool drinks section in a supermarket. There are two new drinks, one in a red can and the other in a brown can. Which one are you most likely to choose? The red one? Probably yes. Do you know why? The popular soft drink Cola comes in red packaging, while there are no established soft drinks brands with brown packaging. So, your mind will choose the red one as it induces familiarity!

See how colours influence our actions! Understanding colours is very important if you are creating a design or developing a brand identity. It can be quite simple, too, if you know the colour theory. Wondering what it is? Let's take a look!

What is Color Theory

Colour theory is basically a set of guidelines defining how colours can be used to create effective visuals. It helps you use colours strategically and logically, thereby making your effort towards creating a particular image successfully. In a design, colours can influence the hierarchy, content delivery, and mood.

At the base of colour theory is the colour wheel, which Sir Issac Newton coined in 1666. The colour wheel maps the entire colour spectrum into a circle. The colours are visually arranged with varying hues in the colour wheel. You have probably learned the colour wheel in your primary classes and know about the primary, secondary, and tertiary colours. To recap, there are three primary colours, three secondary colours, and six tertiary colours. And when you split the colour wheel through the centre, you will get warm tones on one end and cool tones on the other.

Understanding Hue, Shade, Tint, and Tone

So, now we know there are twelve main colours but is that all? No, right? Every colour will have its brighter, darker, lighter, and softer counterparts. And when choosing a colour scheme, it becomes very important to know what these are and how to create them. These colour counterparts or variants are associated with the terms hue, shade, tint and tone. Let's explore each of these terms.


Hue is basically what we mean when we say colour. We can call it the purest form of a colour. The primary colours and secondary colours are actually the hues. Hue has hardly any other colour inside it (the reason why we called them pure). And by adding and removing other colours from a hue, you can create the different variants.


When you add the colour black to any hue, you get the shade. A hue can have different shades depending on how much black you are adding to the said hue. For example, when you add black to the hue yellow, you may get the shades olive green or khaki green, depending on the amount of black added.


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A tint can actually be called the opposite of shade. This is because while we add black colour to a hue to get shade, we add a white colour to a hue to get tint. And as described previously, you can create different tints of a hue by varying the amount of white colour you add.


Also called saturation, a tone of a hue is created when you add black and white (or grey) to a hue. It has the effect of darkening the original hue and making the colour less fiery. Although tone and saturation are the same, saturation is mostly used in relation to digital images and tone to hand-painted images.

Choosing a Color Scheme

When you are preparing to design something, one of the first things you need is a colour scheme. A colour scheme is prepared using the colour wheel. Three commonly used colour schemes are:

  • Complementary colours: Combining two colours on the opposite sides of the colour wheel gives you complementary colours. Since it gives a sharp contrast between the component colours, the result is a bright and popping colour scheme.
  • Analogous colours: Mix colours that are adjacent on the colour wheel, and you will get analogous colours. This colour scheme mostly uses three colours where one will be the main colour, another will be the supporting colour, and the third will be the accent colour. They give an overall pleasing effect to the eye.
  • Triadic colours: In a triadic colour scheme, you use three colours that are equally spaced on the colour wheel. Draw an equilateral triangle inside the colour wheel and pick the three colours that fall on the vertices- you have the triadic colours! While this colour scheme also uses contrasting colours (giving a pop feel), there is also a harmony with the combination that gives a soothing effect.

There are also other colour schemes like split complementary, rectangle, square, etc. Depending on your design requirements, you can explore the various types.

So, what are some things you should consider when choosing a colour scheme?

  1. Identify the mood that you want to create and choose colours that would portray it.
  2. Focus on the colour context- how different colours contrast with each other and what changes it would induce for the user's eyes.
  3. Do a lot of trial and error to figure out a colour scheme that highlights your intent while delivering a good user experience.

Poor colour choice can create a poor first impression even if the design is of superior quality. To create a good appeal, it's crucial to choose colours strategically. And knowing the colour theory can be of much help to get started on the colour journey!

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