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When it comes to design, color is crucial to setting the perfect tone. How color is used in conjunction with typography and contrasting colors makes a world of difference, as they can energize or cool down a mood. By applying color theory to design, the eye will travel to all the right places. So, what is color theory? Color theory, on its most basic level, encompasses the color wheel, harmony, and context in which the colors are being used.

The Color Wheel

The color wheel, based on red, yellow and blue, was developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. Since then, scientists and artists alike have created variations, still causing much debate on which is ‘best’. Essentially, the wheel is designed so any color you choose from it will be complementary; the most common model is a wheel with twelve colors based on the RYB structure.

Typically, there are numerous color combinations that are considered aesthetically correct, which are called color harmonies; they consist of two or more colors with a fixed relation in the color wheel. According to the RYB, the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. The three secondary colors are green, orange, and purple, which are created by mixing two primary colors. The six tertiary colors are created by mixing both the primary and secondary colors.

Color Harmony

Harmony is best described as an attractive arrangement of parts, whether it involves, music, writing, color, or cooking.

When it comes to color, harmony engages viewers with a sense of structure and order—a visually balanced experience. You know a design is not in harmony when it seems cluttered or dull, even if you aren’t quite sure why. Our brains reject what we cannot intellectually and visually organize. In this way, being over-or-under-stimulated leads to confusion, and thus, your audience will become uninterested.

Some great examples of color harmony are complementary, analogous, and triadic color schemes.

Complementary colors, such as red and green, create a vibrant effect, but must be used in moderate doses as to not appear chaotic.

Analogous color, on the other hand, utilizes colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel, which results in a peaceful and smooth design. Our piece of advice: use a contrast to make sure the design is not too subtle.

Triadic color schemes employ colors that are spaced out on the color wheel, in the form of a triangle (hence the name.) Usually this technique allows for a balanced effect.

Color Context

Color context, conversely, relates how each color reacts in conjunction to shapes and other shades. For instance, how would a red circle look within an orange background–what about a black background? Understanding how warmness, coolness, and use of saturation to affect overall design is essential for effectiveness: how we contrast and complement literally changes a viewer’s perception of color, pattern, and design.