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Color Theory for Graphic Designers

If you’re a graphic designer, we’re sure that you’ll love our “introduction to color theory,” specifically written for graphic designers.

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The Basics of Color Theory for Graphic Designers

Let’s imagine for a second; you own a beverage brand and you are preparing for your launch, the products are coming along nicely, and you need to make a final decision on your emblem. Probably, the first thing you’re going to do is to find a base color to structure your whole visual world upon. Because when you think about other brands from similar industries, it’s actually the colors that first pop into your mind, not the whole logo. Think about Coca-Cola, for example, the chance for missing a Coca-Cola can when passing from the beverage aisle is pretty much zero. But that raises a question; what makes the color preference so impactful and important? The short answer is; it’s because of the fact that we’re human beings. For a more elaborate and accurate answer, you can just keep on reading.


First Thing First: The Color Wheel

When clicking on an article with the name “Color Theory For Graphic Designers”, you probably weren’t thinking that you would read the name of the legendary physicist Sir Isaac Newton. However, there you are; reading on how Isaac Newton was actually the father of color theory. In 1666, Newton was conducting research on the refraction of the light beams with glass prisms. In the paper he wrote after his findings from the research, he stated that the reason behind the variance and difference of colors was not the changes in how ‘light’ or ‘dark’ they are as many believed in those eras.

On the contrary, he explained that instead of mixing dark and light with varying ratios, it’s possible to acquire seven different colors just from the white light. With these findings, Newton was convinced that colors were not absolute values, they were rather human perceptions of different wavelengths of light. He then also mapped the seven colors to a schema and identified the three primary colors as red, blue, and yellow. Then, he identified secondary colors as the colors made from mixing the primary ones. And, he identified a final group, tertiary colors, as the colors that are the mixes of secondary and primary colors.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org

In order to understand how designers determine which colors to use together, first, we need to take a look at the color wheel Newton created. As you can see, the primary colors are located on the three different points that form a triangle on the wheel. Now, it’s time to find out how colors can have their own identities. Imagine drawing a vertical line that cuts the wheel in half. In one part of the wheel, you get all the warm colors such as red, yellow, and orange. On the other part of the wheel, you get all the cool colors like purple, blue and green. While warm colors are generally associated with passion, brightness, and action; cool colors convey a more calm and peaceful message. Even this distinction alone can give you a useful idea of which colors create a visually active and passionate or a calm and serene world when used together.

But if these are the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors on the wheel; how do we create hundreds and hundreds of colors, you might ask. The answer consists of three words; shade, tint, and tone. Shade is how much black the color has and tint is how much white was added to the color. And the tone is how much black and white, or gray, was added to the color to create the new one. So basically, hues, we mean colors, diversify with the amount of black, white, or gray added to them and gain new characteristics.


RGB and CMYK; What’s the difference?

When mixing colors, the first and most important thing is to know what the color will be displayed on. Depending on the answer, colors can be created according to two different models; the additive color model and the subtractive color model.

The additive color model, RGB, takes red, green, and blue as its primary colors and all the colors in this model are created by combining these three colors with varying ratios. Since these three colors are the basic colors for the working principle of a digital screen, the RGB color system is the one to go when creating a design for a project that will only be displayed on screens like TV, computers, or smartphones.

On the other hand, the subtractive color model, CMYK, considers cyan, magenta, yellow as the three primary colors, and black as an addition to be able to establish a black color which was not possible with the combinations of cyan, magenta, and yellow. As you can guess, the CMYK system is generally used for print media since designing a print with the RGB color model will result in a design with many different colors than it was on the computer screen.


3 Tips to Create Color Harmony

Since you learned how colors work, you can now start creating your own designs by using the colors you picked. But if you don’t want to go in blind, here’s our humble advice on how you can acquire a color harmony that works for your brand by using distinguished color schemes.



This one is for the designers who want to create pleasant and effective visuals without taking too much risk. In a monochromatic color scheme, you get a color and use it with the different versions that have various tones and shades of it. With a monochromatic color scheme, you can create simple designs that can clearly convey your message to the client. But as we stated, this one is for risk-averse designers and if you’d like to spice things up a bit, check out the other two;



Look at the color wheel and pick a color of your liking. The first color you picked is going to be your dominator. Then, take both of the colors that are adjacent to your first color. There you go, you created your analogous color scheme. If you’re not trying to have a contrast in your design, you can use this color scheme type in order to create designs that can easily guide the users on what they need to do and where they need to look by creating an intended flow in your visuals.


Complementary and Split-Complementary

Unlike monochromatic and analogous, these color schemes are used to create a contrast in the design. For a complementary scheme, you need to use colors that are opposite of each other in the color wheel together. And for a split-complementary color scheme, you have to pick a color and then use it with two colors that are adjacent to its opposite color. If you’d like to have a striking design that will pop out at every glance, a complementary color scheme is a perfect option for you. And if you want to keep the contrast in your design but need more colors to work with, you can use a split-complementary color scheme and use three colors in your design instead of two. However, don’t forget that overdoing contrast in your visuals is the single best way to make customers hate a design so use it wisely.


Progress Your Color Knowledge on Artboard Studio

Since you now learned what color theory is and how you can facilitate colors to serve their purpose in your designs, now it’s time to put this knowledge into work. Practice makes perfect, right? Artboard is a browser-based design tool that allows you to freely create your designs without downloading any additional software to your computer. With Artboard Studio, you can put your color theory information to the test and see which colors work best with others. You can now sign up to Artboard Studio for free and start creating!

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