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Color evokes feelings in us whether we want it to or not, so you have to learn to use it to evoke the feelings you want.

Three colors that look lovely individually might clash when put together, or a color scheme that works might fall apart when adjusted slightly: a minor tweak to a color’s hue or saturation can completely change its feel.  And for many designers, failing to consider this can be the fatal flaw in an otherwise well-constructed website.

If you have enough of an interest in design to be reading this site, you probably have a basic understanding of color theory—the study of what colors go together and why—but it can never hurt to brush up on the fundamentals again.

The Basic Color Schemes

There are a few basic types of color schemes, defined by how many colors you use and what positions they occupy on the color wheel.

Monochromatic

Monochrome2

Using various tones, shades, and tints of one color.

Complementary

Complimentary2

Using two colors that sit opposite from each other on the wheel.  This creates a simplistic duality with a striking contrast.  Black and white.  Red and green at Christmas.  Orange and blue on a movie poster.

There’s also split complimentary, which we’ll cover later.  And double complementary, where you use two complementary pairs.

Analogous Colors

Analogous2

Where you use selection of colors from the same area of the color wheel.  It gives you the harmony of a monochromatic color scheme, but lets you use colors of different hues and vibrancies, providing you with more variety.  Try playing with the tint and shade.

Triadic Colors

Triadic2

Basically, draw an equilateral triangle starting from your primary color and extending to two other colors.  This gives you a bold palette, with a lot of choices between the three in terms of hues, and even more choices when tint, shade and tone come into play.  But it can get complicated, possibly providing you with far too many choices.  Closely related are tetradic and square color schemes, where you do the same things with a rectangle and…  A square, respectively.

And finally…

Split Complimentary

Split-Complimentary2

This is basically just the complementary, with a third color selected from an area next to one of the two colors.  Again, this gives you a lot of choices while still keeping your palette fairly simple.

But What do the Colors Mean?

It varies wildly from culture to culture, but in the western world at least, most colors have a defined and fairly predictable set of meanings associated with them.

Warm Colors

Warm-Colors

Can symbolize either energy, passion, and positivity or fiery emotions like anger and danger.

Red is the color of power and aggression.  It also symbolizes danger and urgent warning.  Studies have shown it to literally raise blood pressure and breathing rates and slightly bump up metabolism as it triggers our fight-or-flight response.  So, if you want your viewers to sit up and take notice, this is your color.  However, it also represents love, lust, and attraction.  So I suppose you could say it’s just the most primal color in general.

Orange is vibrant and energetic, normally associated with warmth and autumn, but also with the idea of change and energy in general.  It commands attention without being as alarming as red.

Yellow is all but the official color of optimism.  It’s associated with hope, friendliness, and extroversion.  It’s the least “alarming” of the warm colors, although it still carries a bit of that connotation due to its use on road signs and in construction sites.

Pink is the only warm color that has no danger associated with it.  Traditionally the color of femininity, it’s still strongly tied to that, also representing gentleness, sensuality, nurturing, and calm.  It can also, especially in its hotter shades, be very flamboyant.

Cool Colors

Cool-Colors

Lack the immediate impact of warm colors, but are much better for putting viewers at ease or creating a sense of calm and professionalism.

Blue is associated with everything low-key and chilled-out.  On the other hand, however, it also represents sadness to most of the western world.  However, it’s very dependent on  shades.  Light blue, the color of the sky, is airy and associated with optimism and possibility.  Dark blues represent solidness and reliability (think Navy Blue), or conversely, mystery (think twilight).

Green is represents growth, prosperity, and all things comfortingly natural and organic.  Since it’s blue mixed with yellow, it has the properties of both, being cool but simultaneously inviting.  Brighter shades are energizing and vibrant where darker ones seem solid and reliable.

Purple is the color of royalty, and represents sensuality and decadence, although it often symbolizes creativity as well.  In general, it’s a lush color, well-suited to anything that wants to look opulent.  Light purples are softer and associated with femininity and grace.

Neutrals

Are what the name implies.  These usually serve to offset other colors, although they do have their own powerful symbolism.

Brown is the earthiest color, representing all things solid, stable, and old.  These can also be good things, however, as they can mean comfort, simplicity, and endurance.  Beige, a watered-down brown, has most of the same connotations, but is subtler and also represents calm neutrality.

Black is the most mysterious and evocative color on the spectrum, and a whole article could be written on what it symbolizes.  However, the short version is that it represents mystery itself, being the color of night, but also sophistication and elegance.  It has a host of other associations that come from various places, including wealth, formality, and functionality on the positive side, but sadness, anger, and death on the negative.

White is the de facto neutral color, usually serving as a backdrop, but on its own, is associated with peace, tranquility, cleanliness, and simplicity.

Gray, the color of most metals, represents solidity, security, and things that, in general, can’t be moved and don’t change.  However, it also has a dignity to it, representing modesty, maturity, and age.  However, silver, in stark contrast, is most commonly associated with the future.  Go figure.

Got Any Questions or Suggestions?

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