Color Theory 101: Strengthen Your Design Skills

Color may seem like such a commonplace element in our lives today, and something most of us really don’t give a second thought. However, color is extremely important, especially when it comes to design. Color can help a design make a strong first impression. Color reflects a mood, invokes feeling and emotions, and even has a strong tie to our memories.

All of this can be explained through color theory, which not only dives into what different colors mean but how different colors work with one another. Color compatibility is not just about individual preference or aesthetics. There is actually a science behind which colors work best together and which colors are able to evoke certain emotions.

Understanding color is such an essential part of becoming a great designer. Whether you are a graphic designer, interior designer or even an event designer, understanding color theory is a must. You can set a mood or tone for an event, piece, room or space all with color. It is an easy way to attract more attention or make a statement. In fact, with the right understanding, you can easily convey an entire message, just by having a good understanding of color theory.

While you could take numerous classes or dive into hours of research on color theory, even a basic understanding of the science behind color theory can help you strengthen your design skills—no matter what type of design you specialize in.

Start With the Color Basics

Chances are, way back in elementary school, you learned about some of the basics of color, including primary, secondary and tertiary colors. However, these are extremely important to the foundation of understanding color theory and are worth reviewing.

Primary Colors: Red, Yellow and Blue

Primary colors are colors that cannot be created by combining any two other colors. If you think of paint, there is no way to make yellow, or red, out of any two colors. However, if you mixed red and yellow together you can make orange.Speaking of orange, the next type of color to look into are secondary colors.

Secondary Colors: Green, Orange and Purple

Secondary colors are made when you combine different primary colors. So, orange is a primary color because you can make it out of red and yellow. Just like purple (violet) is a secondary color because it can be made out of blue and red.

Tertiary Colors: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet

Tertiary colors get a little more complex. They are made when you mix a primary color and a secondary color. This is where you get colors like yellow-green (or lime green) made with green and yellow, or different shades and tints of different colors.

Warm Vs. Cool Colors

In terms of design, most colors are broken up into either warm or cool hues.

Warm Colors

As the name suggests, warm colors create a sense of heat and warmth within a space, design, image or event. Warm colors are known to represent love, passion, heat, and fire.

Warm colors are: red, red-orange, orange, orange-yellow, orange and yellow. Mixing elements of these colors into a design can help give it a sense of “warmth” such as using a red-hued or cherry wood in a home design.

Cool Colors

Cool colors are more commonly associated with water, winter, calmness, tranquility, and water. However, you must be careful when using cool colors as they are often thought of as being too cold and of having an association with sadness.

Cool colors are violet, blue-violet, blue, blue-green and green. Grey is also often referred to as a “cool color” even though it isn’t on the color wheel, especially in terms of design.

The Color Wheel and How Colors Work Together

Now that you know the color types and categories, it is time to dive into how different colors work together, so you can help create the right aesthetic.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are those that sit across from each other on a color wheel. They may be “opposites” but they are complementary and do work together, mostly because of the high amount of contrast between them.

Complementary colors include: green and red, yellow and purple, and orange and blue.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are those that sit next to each other on the color wheel. They coordinate well instead of providing the contrast you blend well with complementary colors.

An example of analogous colors is blue-green, blue and violet.

Triad of Colors

A triad is a set of three different colors that are evenly spaced around a color wheel. Triads have a variety of colors, but they are well-balanced, while still creating contrast. Think of them as a nice middle-ground between analogous and complementary colors.

An example of a color triad is violet, yellow-orange, and green-blue.

Square Colors

As the name suggests, square color combinations feature four colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel in a square.

An example of a square color combination is orange, red-violet, blue and yellow-green.

Tetradic Colors

These color schemes are made by creating a rectangle on the color wheel, instead of a square. This delivers two colors that could be in a triad and two complementary colors.

A common Tetradic Color Combination is orange, yellow-orange, blue-violet, and blue-green.

Split Complementary Colors

Split complementary colors can seem a little complex, but it helps to look at the color wheel to see first-hand how they work. With these colors, instead of choosing the color directly across from one color on the wheel, you choose the two colors on either side. Split complementary color examples are: taking yellow and instead of choosing violet as the complementary color, the split complementary colors would be blue-violet and red-violet.

Colors and the Emotions They Evoke

Now that you have an understanding of what all of these colors are and what they pair best with, its time to look at what these colors all mean, especially in terms of design. When you are using color in your design, you need to have an understanding of the meaning behind these colors. You shouldn’t just use red because you like the way it looks, you should know what it means and what types of feelings and emotions it will elicit from all who come across your design.


Green can have a lot of meanings. Many people associate it with health, growth, and nature. This is why so many natural products are green. However, green is also the color of money and it is often used as a sign of wealth.


Blue is one color that is extremely shade-dependent. This means that different shades of blue can have different meanings. Dark blue can often give off a sense of sadness, while light blue can be a refreshing, calm and tranquil color—known for creating a sense of relaxation.

Purple or Violet

Purple is known for being a royal color and is often synonymous with luxury. Purple can also be associated with intimacy and romance.


Red is a warm color known for being associated with love or passion. It can also be the color or blood or anger. Red can mean danger (such as stop signs) and it is a very strong and dominating color that can command attention.


Orange is another warm color, but it isn’t as aggressive or strong as red. Orange is a more energetic color and fun color and can actually be associated with health as in citrus.


While yellow is warm, like red, it is often associated with sun, fun, and happiness. Yellow can also be associated with thirst—which is why you will see this in stores and in marketing with juice and beverage companies. Yellow is also a color that is known for bringing about attention since it is so bright. After all Caution Tape is yellow for a reason.


White is still a color, even though it may not seem like it, and it can make a big statement. White is known for giving off a sense of cleanliness, holiness, and purity. Women wear white dresses on their wedding and babies wear white when they are baptized, while doctors often wear white to showcase sterility.


Black, unfortunately often has a negative connotation. Black elicits feelings of death, darkness, and despair. However, black can also give off a feel of luxury, especially when it is paired with the right counterparts. The thing to remember is that while black can be sophisticated, it is rarely a cheerful color.

There are so many complexities involved with colors and the way we use them in our world today. The most important thing to keep in mind when designing with color is that many times the thoughts, feelings, and emotions elicited by these colors are subconscious. So, while you may not necessarily “feel” sad when you see a dark blue hue, that isn’t to say that dark blue isn’t subconsciously giving off a more somber vibe to you and others who encounter it.

No matter what you may be designing, keep these foundations of color theory in mind—they can make a huge difference in the impact your designs make.

Learn the Foundations of Design

Color theory is just one of the many foundations of learning design. Whether you’re interested in graphic design, interior design or even event design, learning the foundations like color theory provide you with a solid basis for creating new pieces of work.

If you’re interested in pursuing a design career in Miami, take the first step by mastering your design foundations at Miami Arts & Design Education. Learn more about the design programs offered today!

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