Color Theory

Your constantly-updated definition of Color Theory and collection of videos and articles

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is the study of how colors work together and how they affect our emotions and perceptions. It's like a toolbox for artists, designers, and creators to help them choose the right colors for their projects. Color theory enables you to pick colors that go well together and convey the right mood or message in your work.

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Color is in the Beholders’ Eyes

“Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.”

— Paul Gauguin, Famous post-Impressionist painter

Sir Isaac Newton established color theory when he invented the color wheel in 1666. Newton understood colors as human perceptions—not absolute qualities—of wavelengths of light. By systematically categorizing colors, he defined three groups:

  1. Primary (red, blue, yellow).

  2. Secondary (mixes of primary colors).

  3. Tertiary (or intermediate—mixes of primary and secondary colors).

What Are Hue, Value and Saturation?

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Hue is the attribute of color that distinguishes it as red, blue, green or any other specific color on the color wheel.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Value represents a color's relative lightness or darkness or grayscale and it’s crucial for creating contrast and depth in visual art.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Saturation, also known as chroma or intensity, refers to the purity and vividness of a color, ranging from fully saturated (vibrant) to desaturated (grayed).

In user experience (UX) design, you need a firm grasp of color theory to craft harmonious, meaningful designs for your users.

Use a Color Scheme and Color Temperature for Design Harmony

In screen design, designers use the additive color model, where red, green and blue are the primary colors. Just as you need to place images and other elements in visual design strategically, your color choices should optimize your users’ experience in attractive interfaces with high usability. When starting your design process, you can consider using any of these main color schemes:

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Monochromatic: Take one hue and create other elements from different shades and tints of it.

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Analogous: Use three colors located beside one another on the color wheel (e.g., orange, yellow-orange and yellow to show sunlight). A variant is to mix white with these to form a “high-key” analogous color scheme (e.g., flames).

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Complementary: Use “opposite color” pairs—e.g., blue/yellow—to maximize contrast.

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Split-Complementary (or Compound Harmony): Add colors from either side of your complementary color pair to soften the contrast.

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Triadic: Take three equally distant colors on the color wheel (i.e., 120° apart: e.g., red/blue/yellow). These colors may not be vibrant, but the scheme can be as it maintains harmony and high contrast. It’s easier to make visually appealing designs with this scheme than with a complementary scheme.

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Tetradic: Take four colors that are two sets of complementary pairs (e.g., orange/yellow/blue/violet) and choose one dominant color. This allows rich, interesting designs. However, watch the balance between warm and cool colors.

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Square: A variant of tetradic; you find four colors evenly spaced on the color wheel (i.e., 90° apart). Unlike tetradic, square schemes can work well if you use all four colors evenly.

Your colors must reflect your design’s goal and the brand’s personality. You should also apply color theory to optimize a positive psychological impact on users. So, you should carefully determine how the color temperature (i.e., your use of warm, neutral and cool colors) reflects your message.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

For example, you can make a neutral color such as grey warm or cool depending on factors such as your organization’s character and the industry.

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Use Color Theory to Match What Your Users Want to See

The right contrast is vital to catching users’ attention in the first place. The vibrancy you choose for your design is likewise crucial to provoking desired emotional responses from users. How they react to color choices depends on factors such as gender, experience, age and culture. In all cases, you should design for accessibility—e.g., regarding red-green color blindness. You can fine-tune color choices through UX research to resonate best with specific users. Your users will encounter your design with their expectations of what a design in a certain industry should look like. That’s why you must also design to meet your market’s expectations geographically. For example, blue, an industry standard for banking in the West, has positive associations in other cultures.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

However, some colors can evoke contradictory feelings from certain nationalities (e.g., red: good fortune in China, mourning in South Africa, danger/sexiness in the USA). Overall, you should use usability testing to confirm your color choices.

Learn More about Color Theory

Take our course Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide.

Register for the How To Use Color Theory To Enhance Your Designs Master Class webinar with color experts Arielle Eckstut and Joann Eckstut.

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

For more on concepts associated with color theory and color scheme examples, read Tubik Studio’s guide.

Questions related to Color Theory

What is color theory in art?

As an artist, it's important to have a solid understanding of color theory. This framework allows you to explore how colors interact and can be combined to achieve specific effects or reactions. It involves studying hues, tints, tones, and shades, as well as the color wheel and classifications of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Illustration depicting the color wheel

The Color Wheel © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Complementary and analogous colors are also important concepts to understand, as they can be used to create stunning color combinations. Additionally, color theory delves into the psychological effects of color, which can greatly impact the aesthetic and emotional impact of your art. By utilizing color theory, you can make informed decisions about color choices in your work and create art that truly resonates with your audience.

How does color theory work?

Color theory is a concept used in visual arts and design that explains how colors interact with each other and how they can be combined to create certain feelings, moods, and reactions. Arielle Eckstut, co-author of 'What Is Color? 50 Questions and Answers on the Science of Color,' explains that color does not exist outside of our perception, and different brains process visual information differently. Our retina, a part of the brain, plays a crucial role in color vision, and our brains constantly take in information from the outside world to inform us about our surroundings.

Watch this video for a deeper understanding of the science behind color:

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How to learn color theory?

To learn color theory, enroll in the 'Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide' course on Interaction Design Foundation. This comprehensive course covers all aspects of visual design, including color theory. You will learn how colors interact with each other, how to combine them to create specific feelings and reactions, and how to use them effectively in your designs. 

The course includes video lectures, articles, and interactive exercises that will help you master color theory and other key concepts of visual design. Start your journey to becoming a color theory expert by signing up for the course today!

Why is color theory important?

Color theory helps us make sense of the world around us by providing a shorthand for using products, distinguishing objects, and interpreting information. For instance, colors can help us quickly identify pills in a bottle or different dosages.

Designers also consider cultural, personal, and biological influences on color perception to ensure the design communicates the right information. Ultimately, color helps us navigate the world safely, quickly, and with joy. Find out more about the significance of color in design by watching this video:

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How to use color theory?

To use color theory effectively, consider the following tips from Joann Eckstut, co-author of 'What Is Color? 50 Questions and Answers on the Science of Color, in this video:

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Understand the effect of light: Daylight constantly changes, affecting the colors we see. Changing the light source will change the color appearance of objects.

Consider the surroundings: Colors appear to change depending on the colors around them, a phenomenon known as simultaneous contrast.

Be aware of metamerism: Colors that match under one light source may not fit under another.

Remember that various factors such as light source and surrounding colors influence color, which is not a fixed entity. Being aware of these factors will prepare you to work effectively with color. Watch the full video for more insights and examples.

Who invented color theory?

Color theory, as we know it today, is a culmination of ideas developed over centuries by various artists and scientists. However, one key figure in its development is Sir Isaac Newton, who, in 1666, discovered the color spectrum by passing sunlight through a prism. He then arranged these colors in a closed loop, creating the first color wheel. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later expanded on this with his book "Theory of Colours" in 1810, exploring the psychological effects of colors. 

Modern color theory has since evolved, incorporating principles from both Newton and Goethe, along with contributions from numerous other artists and researchers. To learn more about color theory, consider enrolling in the Visual Design - The Ultimate Guide course.

Is color theory hard?

Understanding color theory might seem daunting at first, but it is manageable. Michal Malewicz emphasizes in the video below, that initially, a UX designer only needs three colors: a background color, a foreground (text) color, and an accent color. 

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It's advisable to start with fewer colors and gradually incorporate more as you become comfortable. Also, avoid color combinations like red mixed with saturated blue or green, and always test your colors for contrast and accessibility. Mastering color theory ultimately comes down to practice and observation. If it looks good, then it is good. For a comprehensive learning experience, consider enrolling in the Visual Design - The Ultimate Guide course on Interaction Design Foundation. Enroll now

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Literature on Color Theory

Here’s the entire UX literature on Color Theory by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Color Theory

Take a deep dive into Color Theory with our course Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide .

In this course, you will gain a holistic understanding of visual design and increase your knowledge of visual principles, color theory, typography, grid systems and history. You’ll also learn why visual design is so important, how history influences the present, and practical applications to improve your own work. These insights will help you to achieve the best possible user experience.

In the first lesson, you’ll learn the difference between visual design elements and visual design principles. You’ll also learn how to effectively use visual design elements and principles by deconstructing several well-known designs. 

In the second lesson, you’ll learn about the science and importance of color. You’ll gain a better understanding of color modes, color schemes and color systems. You’ll also learn how to confidently use color by understanding its cultural symbolism and context of use. 

In the third lesson, you’ll learn best practices for designing with type and how to effectively use type for communication. We’ll provide you with a basic understanding of the anatomy of type, type classifications, type styles and typographic terms. You’ll also learn practical tips for selecting a typeface, when to mix typefaces and how to talk type with fellow designers. 

In the final lesson, you’ll learn about grid systems and their importance in providing structure within design. You’ll also learn about the types of grid systems and how to effectively use grids to improve your work.

You’ll be taught by some of the world’s leading experts. The experts we’ve handpicked for you are the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design Emeritus at RIT R. Roger Remington, author of “American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960”; Co-founder of The Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and leading color consultant Joann Eckstut, co-authors of “What Is Color?” and “The Secret Language of Color”; Award-winning designer and educator Mia Cinelli, TEDx speaker of “The Power of Typography”; Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA Ellen Lupton, author of “Thinking with Type”; Chair of the Graphic + Interactive communication department at the Ringling School of Art and Design Kimberly Elam, author of "Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type.”

Throughout the course, we’ll supply you with lots of templates and step-by-step guides so you can go right out and use what you learn in your everyday practice.

In the “Build Your Portfolio Project: Redesign,” you’ll find a series of fun exercises that build upon one another and cover the visual design topics discussed. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

You can also learn with your fellow course-takers and use the discussion forums to get feedback and inspire other people who are learning alongside you. You and your fellow course-takers have a huge knowledge and experience base between you, so we think you should take advantage of it whenever possible.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

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