Creative Design
Jessie Lacey
by Jessie Lacey
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A Crash Course In Color Theory, Part Two: Color Harmony & Combinations

A Crash Course In Color Theory, Part Two: Color Harmony & Combinations

Color harmony is the science and art of putting together colors that look good.

Color theory is part biology, physics ( covered in Part One in this series), psychology (to be covered in Part Three) and geometry. I think one thing I love about playing with color harmony is how simultaneously mathematical and emotional it can be.

Basically, if you take the color wheel which is the spectrum arranged in a circle, you can come up with basic harmonies by using angles and symmetry.

Monochromatic: One hue with various tints and/or shades

Analogous: Hues next to each other on the color wheel

Complementary: Hues opposite each other on the color wheel

Double-Complementary: Two different hues and their complementing hues

Split Complementary: A hue plus two hues equidistance from the first hues complementary

Triadic: Three hues equidistance from each other

Accented Analogous: A hue, its complement and its analogous hues

Tetradic: Two hues and their complements, equidistance from each other

Memorizing these definitions of harmonies won’t suddenly push you to color-combining stardom though. When it comes to marketing, a lot more is involved when it comes to branding, websites and products. Variables are added to the mix, things like gender, age and personality, cultural context, prevailing context, perceptual effects and effects of time in social trends.

Color harmony = f (COL1,2,3,…,n) • (ID + CE + CX + P + T)

Age/Gender/Personality: This one is personal. Children tend to be attracted to brighter hues and studies show that men overwhelmingly prefer blue while they hate purple, while many women choose purple as their favorite color.

Cultural Context: Society breads learned responses to color. For instance, pink is for girls, blue is for boys. Little boys can even have a visceral “yucky” reaction to pink items. This is based purely on societal conditioning and if society deemed pink to be a boys color, boys would be clambering for the pink Legos and pink action heros—in fact, up until the 1930’s, that was precisely the case: pink was a boys color and blue was a girls color. I think we can all agree that color has no gender and that social context plays a role in this labeling…who knows what it will be in another 80 years.

Prevailing Context: This is the impact that setting and ambient light, or a surrounding hue, can have on the shade of a color. Purple on a background of blue looks like a different color when placed on a red background—it is also a popular optical illusion.

Perceptual effects: The effects of simultaneous contrast and color association on the emotional level—an example of this would be red being perceived as romantic, exciting, sensual or signaling danger. These are learned and affected by culture but not in the blatant way that Cultural Context (CX) affects perception. In another example, the perception of color is based on the name its given. When presented with the color brown, labeled as such, more people said they did not like the color when compared to a group who was presented with the same color brown but labeled as “mocha”.

Effects of Time in Social Trends: This is similar to cultural context with emphasis placed on time-based trends. The example of pink versus blue above can fit here as well. In the 70’s, everyone had an avocado colored appliance, in the 80’s and 90’s, that was seen as gauche and dated and simple black and white appliances reigned supreme. Stainless steal kitchens became de rigueur in every home wanting to be marketable in the past few years and even that had it’s peak while an appreciation for the retro mid-century palate is enjoying a resurgence.

So, Now What?

The above variables show that the focus shouldn’t be on any specific color. There are no hard and fast rules, context matters. Color trends in fashion and interior design are a coordinated effort based on tastemakers and designers research that echo through into graphic design, packaging and branding. Ever notice how one year when you shop for housewares everything seems to be turquoise and tangerine? Emerald and boys wearing salmon pants became a thing? Get ready for Radiant Orchid and Cayenne stealing the scene, you’ll notice how things are already a bit minty green too.

Colour theory is a central and often underused area of design. Taking cultural context, design trends and psychology into the process are things to consider when choosing a designer for your website, brand collateral and packaging. Choose the right individual to not just create persuasive marketing for your users, but, a designer who can keep-up and anticipate trends and cultural mood will benefit your brand now as well as in the future.


Download the printable PDF , print it at 12" x 18", laminate it! It's that good. I made these infographics from scratch.

Stay tuned for Part Three: Color Psychology. Things get emotional.


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