A Guide to Color Theory in Graphic Design

Published on: June 24, 2024

Interested in a career in graphic design? Then you’ll need to have an in-depth understanding of color theory. After all, the use of color plays a critical role in the success of a design, whether it be in physical print or online.

What exactly is color theory, and what does it have to do with graphic design? With a better understanding of color theory basics and principles, you’ll be empowered to incorporate this important concept into your future work.

Understanding the Basics of Color Theory

In simplest terms, color theory refers to a design concept centered around how colors interact with each other and how they can be used to evoke different emotions. In graphic design specifically, color theory can help designers make important decisions regarding branding color schemes, how to choose brand colors and how to use colors in a design to elicit a certain response from a target audience.

To effectively understand and use color theory, graphic designers must also have a more in-depth understanding of colors and their various properties, including:

  • Values – This refers to the perceived lightness or darkness of a specific color.
  • Saturation – This refers to how bold/intense or washed-out a color appears in a design.
  • Hues – This refers to the precise name of a color being used in a particular design.

Concerning color theory, all these components come together to help designers make informed decisions about color choices based on the specific goals of the design itself.

Color Harmonies: Combining Colors Effectively

When applying color theory to their work, graphic designers are often focused on creating color harmonies. A color harmony is a combination of colors meant to work together to elicit a response or emotion from a target audience.

There are many different types of color harmonies that can be used in graphic design, with some of the most common including:

  • Complementary – Complementary color harmonies are those located on opposite ends from each other on the color wheel. This results in contrasting colors that are ideal for creating bold designs that capture the attention of an audience. Examples of complementary colors include red/green, orange/blue and green/magenta.
  • Analogous – Analogous color schemes are also used often when designers apply color theory to their designs. Analogous colors are those located next to each other on the color wheel. Usually, these colors are used in conjunction to achieve a more harmonious or peaceful look. You only need to glance at a color wheel to come up with some analogous color scheme examples for yourself, but some common ones include the use of reds and oranges or blues and purples together.
  • Monochromatic – Another type of harmonious color scheme that graphic designers often use when applying color theory is that of monochromatic colors. A monochromatic color scheme is followed when multiple hues or versions of the same color are used in a design. Usually, monochromatic schemes are used when a designer is trying to achieve a simple, professional look. For instance, the designer may stick to graphics that are slight variations of a single color (such as blue) when applying a monochromatic color scheme.

The Psychological Impact of Colors

Another important aspect of color theory that graphic designers must understand is the psychological impact that color choice can have on a design. This is true whether that design is published online or printed on paper. For several years, marketing and design professionals have been studying the impact that viewing different colors (and combinations of colors) can have on emotions. Today, graphic design color psychology is an important part of any graphic designer’s everyday work, as knowing how to choose the right colors can elicit the ideal response to convert a lead or make a sale.

So, what kinds of emotions and impacts can different colors elicit? Here are some examples from a HubSpot article on color theory in design:

Color:Emotion or concept:
RedPassion, energy, power, action.
OrangeHappiness, joy, excitement, positivity.
YellowHappiness, brightness, intelligence, optimism.
GreenGrowth, motivation, ambition, success.
BluePeace, tranquility, confidence, trust,
PurpleCreativity, luxury, elegance.
BlackSophistication, mystery, power, boldness.
WhiteSafety, purity, cleanliness.

While this chart is by no means an exhaustive list of colors and their potential associations, it can be a helpful starting point for graphic designers understanding the associations and connections between certain colors and the emotions or concepts they can elicit.

Color in Branding and Identity Design

Color theory can also play a critical role in company branding and the cultivation of a true brand identity. When you take the time to consider some of the most well-known brands in the world, what comes to mind first? Aside from the company logo, one of the first things that comes to mind is likely the color scheme that the brand uses. For example, McDonald’s is known for its iconic use of red and yellow. Amazon, on the other hand, is all about blues and oranges.

The use of color theory in graphic design can make all the difference when it comes to building a solid brand identity easily remembered and recalled by a target audience.

Not only can the right use of colors make a brand more recognizable and memorable, but it can also help set a brand apart from others. Meanwhile, graphic designers may also use colors within a website or other materials to encourage calls to action. For instance, a “contact us” button may be highlighted in red to prompt action for users on a website.

Practical Applications of Color Theory in Graphic Design

Graphic designers have a lot to keep in mind when it comes to using color theory in their everyday work. Ultimately, the specific applications you’ll need to apply to your own design work will depend on the scope of your job, your goals, your target audience and many other factors. However, there are some basic applications and best practices that all graphic designers can follow to utilize color theory more effectively in their work.

First and foremost, graphic designers need to be always thinking about potential cultural implications of their color choices. This all comes down to knowing your audience. In some cultures, some colors may have different implications or symbolize different concepts than what you may be trying to communicate. Likewise, designing for color blindness or other disabilities may also need to be taken into consideration when assessing your unique audience.

From there, designers should work to define brand colors early and to stay as consistent with them as possible. Generally, it’s best to stick to just a few colors to improve recall and help build a lasting brand image. Using too many different colors or hues can overwhelm your audience and lessen the impact of your branding.

Advanced Color Theory Concepts

As you become more proficient in the use of color theory as a graphic designer, you can begin to experiment more with different ideas and more advanced concepts. Rather than sticking to more basic color harmonies, you might delve into more complex triadic schemes, different levels of color intensity and more. It all boils down to experimenting and getting comfortable enough in your abilities to go beyond the use of basic primary colors in design.

Tools and Resources for Graphic Designers

Graphic designers looking to experiment with color theory and build their own skill sets are encouraged to use the variety of tools and resources available to them. The color wheel is the most basic tool that can be extremely useful when it comes to coming up with different ideas for color schemes, identifying complementary colors and brainstorming.

In addition to a color wheel, graphic designers can also benefit from free and paid tools that can help you identify the exact names and hues of colors, generate color scheme ideas and even explore color harmony suggestions.

Learn More About Graphic Design at Park University

As important as it may be, color theory is just one of many foundations of graphic design that you’ll need to master to find success in this challenging yet rewarding field. Perhaps the best foundation for success as a graphic designer is a solid education, ideally in the form of a degree program from a reputable school.

At Park University, we’re proud to offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design program that covers the foundational pillars of branding, typography, color theory, illustration and much more. During your time in this program, you’ll build an extensive portfolio of your best work through hands-on experience and classroom instruction.

Get in touch to request more information about this program or any of the other programs offered at Park University— or get started with your online application today!

Park University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Park University is a private, non-profit, institution of higher learning since 1875.