Color Design Theory: How to Choose the Right Colors for Your Design

Designer choosing colors from swatches at wooden desk. Office workplace with computer keyboard.

Color is an element of light that deeply impacts us physically and psychologically. Naturally, it forms an important part of any design. Colors used well can enhance and clarify while colors used poorly can obscure and confuse.

Interior designers as well as website or graphic designers need to understand this concept in order to achieve the purpose of their design.

For example, interior designers typically use vibrant shades of red and orange on the insides of restaurants and fast food joints. This is done with the purpose of stimulating the customers’ appetites (as warm colors are considered appetite-inducing).

However, on the inside of airplanes, these hues must be avoided. You are not interested in stimulating passengers here – you want to keep them relaxed. This can be done by using calming colors like shades of blue.

Likewise, incorporating the right colors in website designs is an important communication tool used by web producers to connect with their users. By following the rules of color design theory, website designers send messages more effectively to the readers.

Important terms used in color design theory

Colored sunflower zipper illustration in gray and vivid colors

To choose colors for your design, you must be familiar with certain important terms used therein. Contrast, hue, value, chroma and analogy are the main principles of color design theory. Let us study these elements in detail:

  • Contrasting colors – These are different or dissimilar colors which, when used in color design, help draw attention.
  • Analogous colors – These are similar colors. Analogous colors can be used in color design to create ‘groups’, they are particularly important in graphs and data representation.
  • Hues – Hue is a term used to denote the color positions on the color wheel. For instance, light blue, dark blue or pale blue belong to the same hue, which is blue.
  • Value – Value is the perceived lightness or darkness of color.
  • Chroma – This is the term that describes the ‘colorfulness of a color’. High chroma means brighter, more vivid or more saturated colors. Low chroma, on the other hand, denotes muted tones.

Guidelines for selecting colors for your designs

Graphic design of colored ufo alien hot rod isolated on white background

As stated above, using analogous colors can help group certain objects whereas, by using contrasting colors, you can highlight certain objects used in the design. Controlling the value and contrast of colors can help make the design more legible, a very important point for making graphs and data representations.

Here are a few tips for choosing colors for your designs:

  1. You can start by trying out complementary color schemes in your web design. These are the colors that are, location wise, placed opposite to each other on the color wheel. Naturally, you must also pay attention to the hue and saturation values of the chosen colors. You may also need to mix and match colors until you reach a final satisfactory design.
  2. It can also be useful to choose color palettes that have already been used elsewhere. Many online and offline graphic art books contain attractive color palettes with matching colors that can be incorporated in your design.
  3. Generally speaking, warm colors like reds, yellows and orange etc. help make the design more stimulating and positive. However, they could also be considered too direct and impetuous.
  4. Gray, black, brown and white are considered quite elegant and passive, but they may also make the design seem a bit cold or detached.
  5. Pastel shades, as well as greens and blues, are colors that help instill confidence as they are considered reassuring and inspiring.

In conclusion

There is no right or wrong color for a particular design. You should always bear in mind the message your design is intended to portray. The unique characteristics of the design are what will determine its colors. That being said, do not be afraid to experiment until you find the best fit for your project.