What is color theory?

Color theory is a set of rules that combines creativity and science. Color theory sets the fundamental guidelines around color combinations and harmony. Designers and artists rely on color theory to make the correct choices for their projects but they are not the only ones who use it. Most people unknowingly make everyday decisions based on color theory and color harmony. Understanding the guidelines of color theory can help you in so many areas of life, from your business to your clothes.

So whether you’ve come to the sudden realization your pants and shirt you’ve been wearing regularly for the past 3 years clash, and look hideous, and your wardrobe needs a serious revamp, or you are looking to design a high-end website or logo for your new business, this article may be of use to you.

Before we delve deep into the rainbow, and world of color and combinations, it’s important to understand that overuse of color can be detrimental to any design or style if used incorrectly or carelessly. This article will try to steer you in the right direction to minimize the chances of that happening.

In fact, minimal design is becoming increasingly popular in the online world of design, and using color theory is still as important as ever before in order to get it right. Incorporating minimal design, or minimalistic ux design into your website combined with the right understanding of color theory can result in you hitting the nail of the head and giving delightful experience to any visitor who happens upon your site.

We live in a highly visual world and it is impossible to master the art of visual communication without a good grasp of color theory. If you are a brand that wants to connect with your audience and followers then getting confident with the color spectrum is advisable. From understanding color colours all the way through to a deep understanding of colour wheel definitions is advisable.

Color Theory Definition

Colors are everywhere. In our daily lives, we are constantly surrounded by colors. These colors can influence our emotions – how we feel about someone or something – even how we think about brands. Marketers have been using the psychology of colors for decades and often draw on them to gain an emotional response from the customer.

In this post we will examine the different rules of color theory and break down some different color combinations and definitions, as well as the color mixing basics. There is also a section on specific color meaning and the power that color has on branding.

What is a color wheel?

Step one to understanding color theory starts with the color wheel. In 1866, Isaac Newton used physics to develop a color disc based on how light reflected off prisms. His discoveries have laid the foundation for the color wheel as we know it today.

There are two models of colour wheel and the first is blue, red and yellow (RYB) which are universally known as the primary colors. Their corresponding secondary colors are then green, orange and purple. Tertiary colors are green-yellow, yellow-orange, orange-red, red-purple, purple/violet-blue and blue-green.

The second is RGB or red, green blue which is digital color. You could say there are two types of colour, subtractive and additive. Subtractive is physical colour, the most common type would be paint. Subtractive colour works by removing light, so if you kept adding purple paint to a canvas, it would eventually build to black.

Additive color is digital and adds light as you add more colour. Kee adding and it will eventually end up white.  

Color harmony

Think of color harmony as the visual results from the rules of the color wheel. In order to understand the color theory definitions you need to know the importance of color placement on the color wheel.

These guidelines can be explained through 9 main color wheel rules: primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors, intermediate colors, complementary colors, monochromatic colors, analogous colors, triadic colors and tetradic colors. 

In order to create true color harmony in your marketing collateral, your wardrobe and your interior design, it’s important to understand what colors work well together and why.  

Primary Colors

Mentioned above there are simply three primary colors and they are red, yellow and blue. The purpose of primary colors is that they’re the basis all other colors may be derived. These three colors combined in all different sequins result in secondary colors. Without these three primary colors we would not be able to create any other beautiful colors.

Secondary Colors

As Colorwheelartist.com nicely describe secondary colors as the children of the three primaries that is simply what they are. Red, yellow and blue (the primary colors) combined result in orange, purple and green.

Tertiary Colors

Can you now guess how we make tertiary colors? Yes primary colors mixed with secondary colors. Again Colorwheelartist.com calls these colors the six grandchildren of the primary colors, therefor six tertiary colors are created in total.

Intermediate Colors

Intermediate colors are best described as opposite colors on the color wheel. These colors exist between each primary and secondary color on the color wheel. When naming the intermediate colors you always take the primary color name first.

Complementary Colors

This is a method of combining colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel one side of the color wheel that consists of warm colors and the opposite side cool colors. Having one warm color and one cool colour is going to increase the contrast of these colors.

The aim is to achieve a vibrant harmonious color scheme by combining both. The important thing is to remember not to have those two colors at a high saturation as they will most definitely clash and be harsh on the eyes to look at. A good idea would be to pick one of the two colors to be your ‘main’ focus color and then the second color will compliment the main color.

Monochromatic Colors

What monochromatic colors are all the colors from a single hue using tints, shades and tones to lighten or darken the original hue. In more simple terms it may be an image of the clear sky and clear water below, the sky may be a pale blue color and the more defined areas a dark blue colour but all from the same hue.

Analogous Colors

These are colors right next to each other on the color wheel so for example red, red orange and orange. Analogous is defined as things performing a similar function but having a different evolutionary origin. All three colors very similar but not the same carrying similar traits of each other. Analogous colors are evident almost everywhere and work so well to create a nice harmony in an image or in a real life setting like a sitting room.

Analogous colors - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

For example when creating a design from scratch using analogous colors you wouldn’t have equal amounts of each color in the design typically you would choose just one ‘mother’ or some people may call it ‘dominant’ color and then use the rest to compliment it in your design. There are no specific rules but 3-4 colours worst best.

Triadic Colors

Triadic color schemes are three colors taken from the color wheel by forming a triangle connecting the three colors. Triadic color schemes always contain rich and vibrant colours of huge contrast you could say they’re the opposite to a monochromatic color scheme that we spoke about above.

Triadic colors - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

For example, a triad could be made up of yellow, red and blue but if you think they wouldn’t compliment each other very nicely then you could take different hues, tints and shades from each colour and create a triadic color scheme from those.

Tetradic Colors

Tetradic colors are displayed on a color wheel image - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

Similar to triadic colors a tetradic color scheme is combined of four colors that is made up of two sets of complementary colors. The four colors for a rectangular shape on the color wheel. On the short side of the rectangle there is only one colour separating the colors and on the long side of the rectangle there are three in between. Again like the triadic color scheme it is best to let one colour be the dominant or mother color.

Color Combinations

So, now that you know the basic rules around colour harmony, let’s delve a bit deeper into color combinations. Combining two, three, four and more colors together is definitely a skill in itself because the potential combinations are endless.


The most important thing to remember is balance, one colour should balance the next. If you are decorating a room, for example, it would be advisable to have one strong, or main colour and then the rest can work in harmony with that shade.

Duo lime green grey - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

Take this interesting duo – lime green and grey. The zesty lime green packs a serious punch and could be garish if it was paired with something equally strong. Teamed with a flat dark grey creates harmony and becomes a really cool and contemporary combination.

Deep green rose pink - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

Another pairing that works because of balance is this mysterious deep green combined with a rich rose pink. What works here is the balance between the masculine green and feminine pink, neither of which are too extreme in either direction.

Coral brown peach - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

A fabulous trio colour combination would be this coral, soft brown and peach. Together they conjure up feelings of hugge homeliness. Here, the warmth of each colour creates the harmony. This combination would be perfect for a living room or bedroom!

Purple shaded quadrant - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

Once you go above three color combinations it is important that you have a clear vision of what the end goal is. Harmony and balance is harder to achieve so make sure you try and test before committing. This purple shaded quadrant is in perfect harmony because it pulls inspiration from different families of hues. The rich raspberry is the perfect accompaniment to the dark inky purple. Both of these rich shades are then set off by the lilac and mid-tone blue/purple. There are also free color mixers to try your color mixes risk-free and share it with other color enthusiasts.  

For a full compilation of inspiration, check out 80 Eye-Catching Color Combinations.  

The Meaning of colors


We often associate green with nature, health and vitality so it’s no wonder we see this color in environmentally friendly products or natural beauty and health products. Use nature inspired hues in your designs to convey a natural feel.


Red is one of the basic colors is powerful and can convey many different emotions and feelings depending on its context. It can invoke passion and love in some but anger and rage in another. Universally, red is a color of strength and brands often use it to show power, even dominance. My first thought when it comes to red and branding is Coca Cola, and I’m sure no one would argue against their domination of their market.


Blue – some see blue as a calming color while others associate it with sadness. It has of course long been a color to denote masculinity, often campaigns associated with men’s health overwhelmingly use blue. A dark navy blue is often used in business campaigns as it conveys a sense of seriousness and professionalism. Use navy blue in your design for that corporate feel and conservative look.


Purple – a traditionally royal color, purple has been associated for centuries with royalty and majesty. Purple will always be a color of luxury and it is often used to show opulence or expense. To give your designs a luxury feel, incorporate purple throughout.


Orange- It is said that the happiness associated with the color yellow combined with the energy of red comes orange. Orange gives a sense of sunshine, joy and the tropics. The color is associated with happiness, creativity, warmth, sunshine, fun and happiness. Orange has the appearance of general wellness, vibrancy and emotional wellness. Orange is believed to offer emotional strength in difficult times.


Color theory: yellow - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

Yellow- Yellow can be seen as two different meanings, one being a bright, fresh, positive energizing color. Sunshine and optimism are more characteristics of yellow along with building confidence and encourages communication. Bright yellow tends to be used a lot in products for children in particular as it’s fun and attention grabbing. On the other hand the overuse of yellow cause cause negatives. A lack of focus, frustration and inability to complete tasks can be the result of the overuse of a bright yellow color.


Color theory: pink - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

Pink- Pink on the color wheel instantly reminds people of femininity, girliness, gives a sense of calmness, love and kindness. The soft and relaxing, romantic color is actually a light shade of red but so popular is a color of its own and is said to be the sweet side of red. Ever wonder why Iowa Hawkeyes have pink locker rooms for visitors?(Or did you know they do) Well it is famously said to be to make the opposing team be so relaxed at the sight of the color and also another theory of the pink locker rooms was they would psychologically beat the opposing team before they stepped out on the field.


Black- The color black comes with many mixed emotions and meanings for everyone some include power, mystery, aggression, sophistication, evil, aggression, grief, mystery or even both positivity or negativity. The color can also be used powerfully amongst rebellious teens or people wanting to cover up weight or even feelings, fears and insecurities. The color black is commonly used in brands in contrast with white to stand out, you would think since they are opposite colors they would not work well but in actual fact they’re very effective.


The image shows white arrows - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

White- A color that is associated with purity, innocence, light, safety, brilliance and cleanliness. A blank canvas being pure white is satisfying and clear to look at as painting the walls in your entire house is now a trend as it has a clean and classy look. The color white aids gives mental clarity, feeling and look of freshness and clutter free. Like most colors when overused it can have negatives, with white being blinding if it is in very bright light. White is a very complimentary color as it almost goes with any color on the color wheel.


Turquoise- Being a color between blue and green color turquoise can be summed up as cool and calming. The meaning of the color can be described with descriptions such as wisdom, creativity, emotional balance, growth, peace of mind and mental clarity. It is said to have turquoise arouse is good in case of emergency the color can help you think clearly and make decisions.


Brown- Brown can stimulate the appetite even though it can appear to be dull and serious it can be associated to high quality, comfort and friendly and approachable. Another side to the color brown is that it has a sense of wholesomeness, nature, organic, outdoors and agriculture. The color brown is teamed up with also depends of the meaning it gives off for example brown and ivory can appear stylish and classy.  


Сolor theory: grey - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

Grey- Grey would have more negative characteristics rather than positive. A timeless and practical color is emotionless, moody, dull and dirty on one hand but on the other in the right setting is sophisticated, knowledge and wisdom. The perfect neutral, intermediate grey color can be used as a canvas for designers. The ‘grey’ area is commonly heard of and is the inbetween of black and white and unemotional.


Color theory: coral color - A brief guide on color theory for designers - Image

Coral- A color made up of pink and orange giving the vibe of warm and tropical seas and can be a color of peace. Coral give you the boost to form balanced and healthy opinions. Living coral(color of the year) a shade of the coral family is very popular is nourishing and youthful without being overbearing, our color combinations blog goes into more detail about living coral and many more colors.


Indigo- Described as a colored with a mix between blue and purple with similar traits. In times of deep concentration the color indigo helps to focus and is a powerful and dignified. It includes structure and power also and can in fact promote wisdom and devotion. This color is strong and on the negative side is associated with addiction and too much of the color is also said to leave your ego go out of control.


Amber- Similar to coral yet different looking more like a shade of dark yellow. It promotes feelings of joy and energy but can be daring. The color amber can make one feel safe and create an atmosphere full of happiness. In marketing the orange yellow color of amber can draw impulsive shoppers into the store. Some would say someone who loves orange that uses amber as a slightly toned down attention seeking version.

Olive Green

Olive Green- A dark shade of green that shows ambition, greed and flattering. A mix of meanings for this color but also symbolized with luck in most Western cultures. Leadership especially upon women is commonly associated with the color olive green.


Lilac- A soft, relaxing, friendly look color that has a sense of innocence. A color that represents a very light purple, sense of tranquility, peace and friendship. More traits of the color lilac are bravery, value and also loyalty. A nice unique color that we don’t see enough of. Brands may choose this color to express the personality of their brand as open-minded and friendly.


Fuchsia- You would presume fuchsia is a shade of pink, it is actually a purplish red color that is very vibrant and eye catching. A confident, bright and bold energizing color similar to pink mentioned above is perceived a ‘girly’ color. Fuschias inspires commitment and draws lots of attention if it were a person it would be loud and outgoing.


Burgundy- A touch lighter than the color maroon burgundy can be viewed as a color to represent power, richness and a higher society class. A sophisticated yet serious color on the color wheel. Many wine companies would use the burgundy color in branding seeing as burgundy is part of the wine color family.

Color And Branding

Savvy marketers and business owners know the importance of colour on branding. As we showed you above, colours hold their own special meaning and significance and they have the power to evoke emotions.


The colour choice of certain brands is so successful that they have trademarked the exact shade. Tiffany & Co is the famous New York City Jewelers known not only for their amazing choice of jewelry but for their iconic robins egg blue branding. Tiffany Blue was trademarked in 1998 and is also a Pantone colour.


Barbie PinkCadbury PurpleT-Mobile Magenta and UPS Brown are all trademarked colours that have worked spectacularly for their brands.


They have found the formula for brilliant brand recognition. It is estimated that brand recognition can be increased by up to 80% by effective use of colour throughout marketing, packaging and logo design.


Creative marketing uses the emotions of consumers to sell their product or service successfully. Using colour as a tool to do so is a quick and inexpensive way to carry the right message. As outlined in the section above, every color carries its own meaning. As a business owner or marketer, use this to your advantage.

If you are a brand new health drink, then chances are you wouldn’t use black as your primary color because the immediate associations that people automatically link would be way off. On saying that there is room for creative licence. Sometimes a bit of shock value works wonders! But, always make sure you understand what you are doing and why.


Brand colours can be used everywhere, from their logo and website to social media and marketing collateral. But they are just the obvious ones, business owners need to think about staff uniforms, store fit-outs and advertisements. Before you commit to a color, make sure that you have thought all these things through thoroughly.

An understanding of color comes naturally to some people but there is always room to improve and push the level of your comprehension. Those for whom it doesn’t come so easily, this blog post should help you to lay the foundations to build on your color knowledge. And if you’re looking for a challenge to start creating awesome color palettes for characters, take a look at color theory in character design.

Briona Gallagher

Briona Gallagher

Briona Gallagher is a Product Manager. With a background in Fine Art, Design and Journalism, she has a demonstrated history in all areas of visual and written communication. Her favourite design tools are Background Remover and Moodboard Maker templates - "They make life easier" - as she likes to say.