Colour Theory for Beginners (No Nonsense)

Look at the colour below.

purple to illustrate feelings

How does it make you feel? Does it make you feel anything? Does it remind you of anything?

For me, it feels very calming. It also makes me think of springtime and fields of lavender. For you, the experience might be different.

How about this one?

yellow to illustrate happiness

For me, it feels like a happy colour and reminds me of sunshine and smiley faces.

Colour can affect us in many ways and the key is to use it to influence or persuade your audience.

A lot of businesses (including Express Ads from Jellyfish) use blue in their brands. Blue has often been linked with feelings of trust, intelligence and calmness.

However it very much depends on the user’s own personal experiences, even gender can play a big part. For example, statistically women prefer lighter, more muted, colours.

That being said, there are some examples that are fairly consistent:

Greens for freshness, environment and positive actions

Reds for bold statements, warnings and romance

Pinks for light and feminine

Yellows for happy and cheerful

Colour matters if you’re creating a spreadsheet, a graph, a movie poster, an ensemble for your awards night.

Why? Because your message matters, and your identity.

If you’ve been reading my series so far you’ll know that one of the most important aspects of design is being able to communicate your message efficiently and effectively.

Understanding basic colour theory helps take your communications to the next level, which is why I’ve put together a guide to get you there even faster…

This is a colour theory wheel:

Colour theory wheel

Studying the colour wheel helps you unlock the secrets of creating great colour schemes and helps you choose which colour is best for the job.

It actually has a variety of aspects to it. The first is primary colours …

Primary Colours

The wheel is made up of three primary colours – red, blue, and yellow.

In painting terms, these are the colours that you can’t create by mixing other colours together. They are the building blocks for all other colours.

Between them are secondary colours. Again, if you are using paint or ink, then mixing primary colours together will create secondary colours. For example, if you mix red and yellow, you create orange – that’s why orange sits between red and yellow on the wheel.


Complementary Colours

Colour theory analogous colours

Pick a colour on the colour wheel. Then look at the colour opposite. If you put these two colours side by side they stand out. These are known as complementary colour schemes.

Have you ever noticed that a lot of film posters use blue and orange? They are designed like that for this very reason – i.e. blue and orange are strong complementary colours. In fact, 45.1% percent of posters since 1914 have used orange. Given that orange is the complementary colour of blue, this would explain the 6.2% figure for cyan/blue colours since 1914, too. Other high performers were red and yellow (on the orange spectrum).

posters to illustrate colours used

Yellow and purple are complementary too, but aren’t used as much because they’re seen as childlike. Red and green are in the same boat for being “Christmassy”. Still, there are always exceptions to the rule:

Analogous Colours

The last aspect to the colour wheel comes in the form of analogous colours.

These are the colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel. They are often pleasant to look at and fit together well. In fact, if you split the colour wheel down the middle, one side features warm colours that work for a warm, inviting scene and the other half features cooler, more passive colours.

Bad Colour Combinations = Sucky Designs

You can use the colour wheel to help you pick a colour scheme for your work. Here’s a couple of examples …

Imagine you are creating a web page. You could use analogous colours for the branding to bring everything together nicely, but then use a complementary colour for your call to action and make it stand out.

illustration of how colours can be used to stand out

Use complementary colours in things like graphs to distinguish between data sets.

Picking your colours in illustrations or photography is equally important. The below illustration shows the analogous colours of the flame standing out against the complementary coloured background.

flame to illustrate colours standing out from the background

Try using photography that naturally features analogous colours to the rest of your work. If you need to place text over the image, try using colours that are already in the image itself.

colour-text to show what colours are good to use

colour-tex to show what colours are good to use

colour-text to show what colours are good to use

Cultural Significance

The impact a colour makes on you is also influenced by your cultural upbringing.

Did you know that pink was once considered a masculine colour?  We often take it for granted that certain colours mean certain things.

Imagine you’d been brought up in a community that didn’t immediately dress baby girls in pink and baby boys in blue when they were born.

Would you still think pink was a feminine colour?

China uses red as a wedding colour and represents good luck and prosperity. My Grandma always used to tell me however, that using red as a wedding theme in the UK was bad luck. She used to quote a rhyme ‘Get married in red, and you’ll wish you were dead’. Thankfully we are a lot less superstitious these days and red is a popular colour to accent weddings.

In South Africa, red can be a colour of mourning whereas in the UK black is used for that purpose.

All this highlights more than ever, the importance of knowing your customer’s profile and designing for him.

Make your customer feel at home. Use colours that resonate with him in some way.

A great example of this comes from Nick, behind The Scran Line.

Nick knows his audience ‘he refers to them as ‘Sugar Rebels’.

Having identified this, he created a brand using vibrant green and pink colours –designed to resonate with a young audience, inclusive of both males and females. However he also uses black colour to make the more serious messages have substance. The black stands out against the vibrant colour scheme giving a sense of importance and seriousness.

snapshot showing how colours can be combined for different purposes

Bringing it all together

Here are three ways you can use colour theory to take your designs to the next level:

  1. Use colour to influence your visual hierarchy. Try using bright complementary colours to highlight elements like your call to action.
  2. Know your customer and use colours that resonate with them.
  3. Use the colour wheel to find a theme that works well together. Colours that sit close together on the wheel are more harmonious.

Now you know the rules, practice sticking to them for a while … so you can join me in figuring out how to (maybe) break them, one day.

As always, your thoughts are more than welcome in the comments. I could talk about this geeky design stuff forever – just give me the excuse

Understanding basic colour theory helps take your communications to the next level, which is why I’ve put together a guide to get you there even faster …