How Do You Hue?: Color Theory Basics

Ah, yes. Color Theory. A class I’m sure all traditionally trained graphic designers have all completed and self-taught ones have googled at least once in their lives. It’s a pretty self-explanatory course; the theory of colors and how to use them correctly to your advantage. You’d learn the basics of what complimentary versus secondary versus tertiary colors were and what the difference between tint and shade are. And while that information is of course useful and necessary for working with color, I’d like to delve a little deeper into theories I’ve personally used while working as a designer and feel might be helpful to others.

I want to start off with a rapid-fire reminder of what we learned in color theory class, half so you can follow with the vernacular if you’ve already forgotten and half because I, honestly, have also forgotten. There are primary colors which consist of red, blue, and yellow, secondary that are created by mixing two primary colors (i.e. orange, green and purple) and tertiary colors which are created by mixing a primary and secondary color together (think yellow-orange). Simple right?

Now let’s move onto color schemes:

  • Analogous schemes consist of three or so colors located directly next to each other on the color wheel.

  • Complementary is one or more pairs of colors that are opposite to one another on the color wheel. These create the highest contrast and are a favorite of mine to use for color schemes; they just look good together!

  • Split-complementary schemes mix both analogous and complementary schemes.

  • Triadic use three colors that are equal distance from one another on the color wheel.

  • Tetradic schemes are made up of sets of complementary pairs.

These different types of schemes are useful when trying to come up with a palette for a project as it’s near impossible to come up with a combination that looks bad— color science knows what it’s doing!

For more technical uses for colors, it’s also important to know how the project is going to be shown. RGB colors (also known as additive) are used for web-based projects such as website graphics while CMYK (also known as subtractive or reflective colors) are used for print based projects like brochures and business cards. It’s important to know the distinction as it will indeed change the look of the final project. The way light reflects on printed objects versus how light illuminates web colors does mean there is a difference in how our eyes will see these colors and hence why a CYMK colored graphic looks so oddly saturated once exported and viewed online. I’ve run into this problem many times.

Now, with all that fancy, science-y talk, here are some things I’ve personally picked up and learned from my experiences and how we as humans and consumers are affected by color. Certain colors, due to culture, psychology and repetition are best used for certain projects because we as a people are already accustomed to seeing them; we have been conditioned to correlate specific shades of colors to specific emotions or products. Please keep in mind most of these generalizations are aimed at US/Western culture and that in terms of international responses to color, the outcome could be very different!



Red is usually indicative of romance and passion as well as power, boldness and sometimes even danger. This hue is a great color for restaurants or businesses that need to promote excitement as it’s shown to create a sense of urgency, increase heart rates and appetites as well.


Not only a fruit but a fun accent color! Orange stimulates a similar sense of urgency in people as red hues do but is subtler. This is great for techy brands, especially when mixed with grey for a high tech, futuristic feel, as well as brands that cater to impulse buyers or are trying to inspire a “call to action” in some way.



Bright and sunny, this color promotes feelings of optimism, adventure and hospitality, making it a top choice for beach resorts, hotels and other comfort/luxury items. However, yellow can be a bit straining on the eyes and can be hard to read if used in typography. It’s best to use this color at a minimum.


Green is considered the most relaxing color as it is the easiest one for our eyes to process— we’ve also correlated it to money, wealth, luck and it is the second favorite color among both men and women. Green is also linked to the earth and tranquility, so it’s used in a lot of holistic, healthy and environmental businesses.



Usually indicative of trust, security, and stability, making it the most trustworthy of colors. Blue is a very common color in branding because of this psychology, but that also means it may be overused, plus since many corporations use blue in one way or another, it may invoke feelings of corporate stiffness instead of trust.


The concept of “royal purple” has been well ingrained into our society, making purple the go to color to showcase luxury, power and elitism. Purple is often used for decadent dessert brands as well as exotic travel. Purple is often also used to portray decadence in terms of romance or passion as a substitute for reds or pinks.



Pink, despite its early connotations of masculinity due to it deriving from red, pink has become almost synonymous with femininity. Due to the lightness of the color, it’s most often used for young girls and toys but hot pink and magenta have been branching out to more corporate brands to be another trustworthy color like blue.

Moving forward, this is just a quick guide to start you off on the world of color theory. If you’ve never taken a color theory class before, I’d highly recommend it. Whether it be in an actual class or online tutorial, one should never stop learning and relearning the basics of design. Also, I am personally a big fan of the psychology behind color as color really does impact our decisions and interpretations of data as the consumer. We believe and make assumptions about the things we buy, consume, read and volunteer for due to these small bits of information such as color, language, typography, form and design; so, don’t take these bits for granted!