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Complementary Colors: The Ultimate Guide in 2024

by Mads Soegaard | | 59 min read
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This guide will teach you how to use the magic of complementary colors when you design. It’s important that we actively use the art of selecting colors when we aim to craft a visually appealing user experience (UX) that works efficiently. Complementary colors that sit on opposite ends of the color wheel—orange and blue, red and green, and yellow and purple—play a dominant role in this endeavor. 

Have you ever wondered how colors can work together to make your design eye-catching and user-friendly? In this guide, we will teach you how to use complementary colors to create a symphony of harmony in your design and how to use them to draw the user's attention to the areas you want. Complementary colors can elevate a design. They enable you to create designs that are functional and pleasing to the eye. For example, a web designer and marketer often choose two complementary colors to make a call-to-action pop so the user easily discovers where to put an item into the card.  

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

This guide will explore the magic of complementary colors in UX. Learn what makes them unique and how to leverage these colors to get more eyeballs. Let’s start with some basics first. 

Color Theory Fundamentals

Visual arts and design use color theory as a conceptual framework. It explains how colors interact and how combining them creates different effects. Knowing the fundamentals of color theory can make a design or artwork more effective

Discover the power of color! Watch this video to see how color transforms perception and emotions.

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The Science of Colors

Our perception of color stems from light waves interacting with our eyes and brain. The color spectrum includes all colors visible to the human eye. It ranges from red, with longer wavelengths, to violet, with shorter ones. Primary colors red, blue, and yellow, are the building blocks for other hues. Mixing them yields secondary colors like green, orange, and purple, and the mix goes on to tertiary colors. It broadens the designer's palette.

Colors influence our mood and decisions. For example, 

  • Red can increase heart rate and create a sense of urgency. 

  • Blue can induce calmness and boost productivity. 

As marketers and designers, you can use these insights to influence consumer behavior. Choose colors that align with your message and target audience. This science forms a crucial part of design, marketing, and even psychology. It shows the profound impact colors have on our daily lives.

Color Harmony

Color harmony is essential in design. A pleasing and balanced color palette helps achieve this. Harmonious colors enhance each other and create a sense of order. Without harmony, colors may clash which may lead to visual chaos.

Simple harmonies include monochromatic schemes (variations in lightness and saturation of a single color) and analogous schemes (use colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel). These schemes are safe and guarantee visual coherence.

Color Context

Colors change in appearance and significance with their context. The same color can look different when its surroundings have a contrast effect. In design, selecting colors requires consideration of both individual colors and their relationship with others in the layout.

Cultural context also plays a role. Colors have different meanings in different cultures. For instance, white indicates purity in many Western cultures, while it's a color of grief in some Eastern cultures. You must be aware of these cultural connotations, especially in international settings.

Color Psychology

Color psychology studies how colors affect human behavior and emotions. Different colors evoke different feelings. For example, blue often represents calmness and serenity. Red can signify energy and passion. You can use color psychology to influence customer perceptions and behaviors. This approach helps to create effective and emotionally resonant designs.

Contrast and Accessibility

Contrast in color choice is vital for visual clarity and accessibility. High contrast between colors ensures readability, especially in text. It's essential for viewers with visual impairments. For digital design, compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is crucial. These guidelines can help you create content accessible to a wider audience. Proper contrast enhances user experience and ensures inclusivity.

Color Temperature

Color temperature refers to the warmth or coolness of a color. Warm colors, like reds, oranges, and yellows, evoke warmth and comfort. These colors energize and capture attention. Cool colors, like blues and greens, convey calmness and professionalism. They create a sense of trust and stability. Use color temperature to set a mood or atmosphere in a space or design.

What are Complementary Colors?

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. They create high contrast and vibrant looks when used together. Complementary colors include red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. Artists and designers worldwide often use these combinations to make elements stand out. 

Complementary colors also enhance visual appeal. They balance each other, when one color often dominates and the other supports. This concept is key in color theory as it impacts art, design, and even fashion.

The Importance of Complementary Colors

Complementary colors offer a vibrant look at full saturation. They create a high level of contrast and make visual elements stand out. This contrast draws the viewer's eye and can make essential elements more noticeable.

Benefits of Complementary Colors

These colors enliven designs with vivid contrasts and augment visual interest. Their key benefits lie in their capacity to

  • Create eye-catching visuals.

  • Give direct attention to critical design elements.

  • Keep viewers engaged.

  • Enhance text clarity and information accessibility.

Consider Jeff Johnson's insights on designing for older adults – enhance your skills for a more inclusive approach.

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  • Evoke specific emotions.

  • Ensure visual equilibrium among design elements.

  • Use distinct color schemes to foster brand identity.

Applications of Complementary Colors

Strategic use of complementary colors in different disciplines.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

These dynamic color pairs are essential across multiple disciplines. They improve functionality and establish a visual identity. Their uses include:

  • UX/UI design: Highlight buttons and links to improve navigation. A 'Buy Now' button in a complementary color from a UI color palette to the website's scheme will be prominent.

  • Marketing material: Captivates with vibrant ads and posters, using a list of complementary colors for effect.

  • Product packaging: Ensures products stand out on the shelf.

  • Interior decorating: Creates inviting, balanced spaces with split complementary colors for a softer contrast.

  • Art and illustration: Adds depth and drama to artistic works.

  • Photography: Enhances image impact with strategic color contrasts.

  • Film and animation: Directs the viewer's gaze that enhances the storytelling.

You must understand when and how to use complementary and split-complementary colors. Also, recognize the difference between double and split complementary schemes to make effective design decisions. Employ them to create impact and differentiation or to guide the user's attention where necessary.

Discover the science of sight: "Why Do We See Color?"—a vivid journey into our world's hues. Click to play.

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The Basic Complementary Colors

In design, the right color combinations are not just about aesthetics; they're a language all on their own. Complementary colors can communicate action, influence mood, and emphasize content. This section introduces the foundational pairs of the color wheel: 

Red and Green: A Vivid Contrast

Red paired with green offers a striking contrast. Often linked to urgency, red finds balance with green's soothing qualities. This duo is perfect for festive themes. Due to their standout nature, they can be effective for attention-grabbing buttons or safety signs. However, avoid the combination of red and green for any significant amount of text, as it can be very taxing for users.

Blue and Orange: A Harmonious Balance 

Blue and orange strike a harmonious balance reminiscent of a sunset against a chilled sky. Designers favor this duo for its ability to mix a sense of tranquility with vibrancy, famous in movie palettes and website layouts.  

Yellow and Purple: A Royal Pairing

Yellow and purple present a contrast that speaks of luxury and imagination. The vividness of yellow against the richness of purple brings a regal touch to designs. It makes this pair a go-to when you want to add sophistication to various creative projects.

Each pair uses stark contrast to capture attention and guide the viewer's eye. Thoughtful use of these fundamental complementary colors is a powerful tool for designers. It can transform simple projects into extraordinary works.

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See "Why Do Colors Change" and learn about the dynamic world of hues and their visual transformations.

What Is the Color Wheel and How to Use It?

The color wheel visually arranges colors to show their chromatic relationships, originating from Sir Isaac Newton's color circle. Artists, designers, and educators use this tool to understand and apply harmonious color relationships.

Role of Color Wheel

The color wheel acts as a guide for design decisions that evoke the right emotions and reactions.

  • It helps you create aesthetically pleasing color schemes..

  • It illustrates the dynamics of how colors complement or contrast with one another.

  • It offers insights into how different colors can evoke specific emotional responses.

  • It helps you select the appropriate colors for various design needs.

  • It empowers you to use color to improve a design's overall look and feel.

How to Use the Color Wheel

The color wheel is an instrument for all who shape and convey visual concepts. Through its mastery, you can create impactful designs that catch the eye and engage and connect with viewers on a meaningful level.

Creating Color Harmony

Harmony is vital in color theory and design. The color wheel's complementary colors allow you to achieve it by offering a balanced visual experience. Here's how:

  • Use color wheel complementary colors for bold, vibrant contrasts.

  • Choose analogous colors for a serene and comfortable design.

  • Select triadic colors for a rich, dynamic feel.

  • Opt for split-complementary colors for high contrast without the tension.

  • Go tetradic for a complex and nuanced palette.

Each approach serves a specific design purpose. You need to clearly understand color relationships as it allows you to create visually appealing and cohesive compositions.

Implementing in Design

Utilizing the color wheel complementary colors means selecting suitable complementary color palettes for various projects.:

  • Brand identity: Align colors with the brand's ethos.

  • Web design: Craft user interfaces that are intuitive and engaging.

  • Interior design: Create environments that can influence mood and perception.

Color Combinations

Color combinations are at the heart of captivating designs, creating mood, guiding attention, and shaping experiences. Explore the most effective color schemes used across various mediums and industries.

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Monochromatic

A monochromatic color scheme uses variations in the lightness and saturation of a single color. This approach yields a cohesive, soothing aesthetic often used in minimalist designs. It establishes mood and depth using shadow, tone, and highlight while maintaining color uniformity.

Monochromatic colors on a color wheel.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Analogous

The adjacent colors on the color wheel form analogous color schemes. These schemes provide a harmonious and visually pleasing effect, reflecting patterns we see in nature. An analogous scheme provides more nuances while retaining the richness of the colors. It's ideal for creating a serene and comfortable environment.

Analogous colors on a color wheel.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Triadic

Triadic color schemes are vibrant and dynamic. They utilize three colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. This scheme offers a high contrast while maintaining harmony, making it ideal for creating a lively and colorful design without being overwhelming.

Triadic colors on the color wheel.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Tetradic

The tetradic scheme, or double-complementary, involves four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. This rich combination offers plenty of variety and balances best with one dominant color, often used for bold and diverse palettes.

A tetradic color scheme on the wheel.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Beyond Basics

Designers often explore split-complementary color schemes. They choose a base color and pair it with two colors next to its complement. This method provides a softer contrast than a typical complementary scheme. It results in designs that are eye-catching but less intense. It avoids the sharp contrast of direct opposites like red and green.

Understanding the RYB (red, yellow, and blue) and RGB (red, green, and blue) color models is crucial. You need to know which colors complement each other, like the difference between magenta and cyan. This knowledge helps in creating designs that are pleasing and balanced.

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How to Use Cool and Warm Colors?

Cool and warm colors stir different emotions and influence perception and behavior.  You must know when and how to use them is crucial for any designer aiming to craft an effective user experience.

An infographic showcasing cool and warm colors, their characteristics, examples, and use cases.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Cool Colors: Serenity and Professionalism

Cool colors, like blues, greens, and purples, evoke calmness and professionalism. They work well in backgrounds, healthcare apps, and financial interfaces, where trust and tranquility are paramount.

For instance, a banking app might feature a cool blue to promote security and stability.

Warm Colors: Energy and Action

Warm colors like reds, oranges, and yellows reflect energy and urgency. They are excellent for call-to-action buttons, sale announcements, or anywhere you want to draw attention. Consider using a vibrant orange for a 'Subscribe' button—it stands out and encourages user action.

Color Modes: The Backbone of Visual Design

Understanding color modes is essential when applying cool and warm hues in digital design. It ensures that the colors used on screens achieve their intended emotional effect.

Balance for Harmony

A mix of cool and warm colors can make a user interface more appealing. Think of a fitness app. Cool colors create a calming background. Warm colors, on the other hand, can draw attention to critical features like workout challenges. This combination not only looks good but also encourages and excites users.

Knowing how they affect emotions and guide users is essential to effectively use cool and warm colors. You must choose the right colors to make your design both beautiful and functional. It also helps to keep users interested and engaged.

Complementary Colors Generator 

Incorporate a complementary color generator into your toolkit to revolutionize your design process. This interactive feature can help you find the perfect color pairs for your projects. With a click, the generator displays colors opposite the color wheel. This tool can enable you to create appealing palettes with ease.

The Take Away

Complementary colors, with their high contrast and vibrant interaction, are fundamental in creating attractive and emotionally resonant designs. Key takeaways include: 

  • Understand the color wheel to identify complementary colors.

  • Use complementary colors to enhance readability and focus in design.

  • Cool and warm complementary colors evoke different moods and responses.

  • Incorporate a complementary color generator to expedite the design process.

These concepts allow you to apply complementary colors in your projects for maximum impact.

Where To Learn More

See Cameron Chapman’s in-depth piece for insights, tips, and examples of color theory at work.

Read Tubik Studio’s guide for concepts associated with color theory and color scheme examples.

Learn Color modes.

Understand in detail about Color symbolism.

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Soegaard, M. (2023, November 17). Complementary Colors: The Ultimate Guide in 2024. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF.

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