To the average person, color is probably just an unimportant visual detail of design. To an advertising artist, color is one of the most powerful tools they have at their disposal.
Unbeknownst to many, colors are the key to capturing a consumer's attention; they are the bridge that connects a project to its target audience.
Hopefully by the time you reach the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of what colors are, and how you can use color theory to elevate your projects to another level.
The Basics of Color Theory
Color theory is a topic big enough to fill an encyclopedia or two, but we can boil the essentials down to three fundamental categories: the color wheel, color harmony, and color relativity.
The Color Wheel
The color wheel is divided into three groups: primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. Red, yellow, and blue are primary colors because they cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors in traditional paints. The secondary colors of green, orange, and purple are achieved by mixing the primary colors.
Tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary color with an adjacent secondary color. While they have unique names, you can also simply refer to a tertiary color by combining the names of what you mixed to create it (e.g. yellow-green instead of chartreuse, red-purple instead of magenta, etc.).
Once you know the basics of the color wheel, you can employ color harmonies. These are common, established combinations of hues that create an instinctively attractive, satisfying color balance to the eye.
Complementary colors are any two colors opposite each other on the wheel. Analogous colors, meanwhile, are colors located right next to each other. Triadic and square schemes are colors in a trio and a quartet respectively, evenly spaced away from each other on the wheel.
A split complementary scheme is where a primary color is used with the two colors next to its complement. Finally, the rectangle scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs.
Have you ever felt as though the color teal looks green when next to blue, and blue when it's next to green? The reason why is because of something that is referred to as color relativity, color context, or color interaction.
Simply put, it's how color behaves or seems in relation to other colors and shapes around it. You want to take the time to try and understand how people perceive color, so that you may work either within or around those visual tendencies.
If you're starting to feel like all this is causing a bit of information overload, fret not. It is a lot to process initially, which is why even experienced artists revisit these basics from time to time. The good news is that these principles stay the same, regardless of what you're working on.
Alternatively, you could use one of these apps to help you pick a color palette instead.
How Colors Just Might Change What You Think
There is a dedicated—albeit somewhat controversial—branch of study that focuses on how colors relate to human thought and behavior called color psychology.
It has become commonplace amongst creatives to hold the belief that colors can subconsciously and consistently alter a person's perception of something (e.g. how an art connoisseur interprets a museum painting).
Some typical color associations include:
- Red = passion, danger, anger, hunger
- Blue = sadness, tranquility, trustworthiness
- Yellow = optimism, youthfulness, humor
- Green = growth, healing, jealousy, guilt
- Orange = playfulness, friendliness, adventure
- Purple = royalty, luxury, creativity
A 2006 study by Satyendra Singh did conclude that at least 62 percent of a consumer's assessment of a product is based on colors alone, but reputable sources on this topic are still few and far-between.
The masses seem unable to come to a unanimous decision as to whether or not any of the above is true. Nevertheless, artists are studying up anyway, presumably on the off-chance that there is some actual validity to this pseudoscience.
Is it possible to universally translate colors to specific feelings that are true for everyone? Maybe it would be safer to assume that one's feelings about color are deeply intertwined with their personal preferences, life experiences, and a multitude of other factors. Or perhaps there really is a set of rules that rings true for everybody that a lucky, observant designer could discover and exploit for unmatched success.
Either way, it's some food for thought worth keeping at the back of your mind whenever you move to create something.
How to Apply Color Theory to Creative Projects
When thinking about how you want your creative project to look, there are three things you need to clearly establish first: your project goal, your target audience, and your desired impression.
Think about the influence you want to have. Take a moment to ask yourself all of the questions that have to do with the message you're attempting to send to your audience:
- What do you want this project to do?
- Who are you trying to reach out to?
- How do you want people to feel when they come across your project?
Both good designs and great designs are aesthetically pleasing, but the groundbreaking difference lies in the fact that the latter has built its visual appeal on a strong foundation of clean-cut intent. When you choose a color, a shape, or any other design element, try and think about why.
Examples of Color Theory in Action
Let's look at some of the world's biggest brands to see this thought process in action.
In 2018, Coca-Cola stated that its iconic crimson hue was chosen because the brand wanted to distinguish itself from the alcoholic beverages sold in the mid-90s (alcohol was taxed, but soda was not).
The graphic designer behind the currently used Google logo, Ruth Kedar, claims that the company chose the chose primary colors of red, blue, and yellow because the team wanted to start with a recognizable pattern. The hint of green provided by the lowercase 'L' was to show that Google doesn't always follow the rules.
We don't know for sure why Steve Jobs chose white for Apple, but we can make an educated guess. White is often associated with balance, minimalism, purity, and cleanliness; adjectives that are in line with his vision of sleek technological innovations. On top of that, many of the competing brands at the time of Apple's inception were very big on the color gray.
It's clear that sometimes it isn't just what you want to say but how you're going to say it. This is what makes design so important, and why color is worth thinking about at all times. Your project's objective should be what dictates your project's design direction. In need of inspiration? Here's a list of the best design podcasts to help spark your creativity.
Picking the Perfect Color Scheme
At the end of the day, there isn't a numbered step-by-step process nor a perfect formula to using color correctly. You can, however, learn about how color tends to work in order to create a more well-informed approach to the designs of your creative projects.
To summarize: Do your research, put a lot of thought into it, and don't be afraid to experiment.