Published Thu Jan 26 2023

Color In Graphic Design: Theory And Best Practices

Colors directly affect our psychology and are closely linked to our emotions. Colors can influence how we feel and what we want.

colors red, yellow, green, blue and purple

The electromagnetic radiation of a certain range of wavelengths, i.e., color, holds a huge physiological, psychological and philosophical meaning. The color itself is a magical concept. How our eyes and minds respond to things is reflected in our perception. And the way our psychology responds is even more fascinating. An object's interaction with light, our perceptions, and feelings are all interconnected and uphold beauty in themselves as much as the hues we observe.

Aristotle perceived the magical effect of color centuries ago. He viewed color as the product of a mixture of black and white. Newton, in turn, experimented with his prism and provided scientific backup for the meaning of color.

Colors directly affect our psychology and are closely linked to our emotions. Colors can influence how we feel and what we want. The tone, shade, brightness, and tint play decisive roles in our perception and emotions.

Understanding Color In Graphic Design

Besides our perceptions, feelings, and emotions, colors wouldn't have overpassed a field so connected with what they are - design. Graphic design – the art of beautiful and artistic ads, eye-catching visuals, attractively designed magazines, posters, apps and layouts, and so on, uses colors as an essential element to transmit the message.

Eventually, graphic design also pushes us to a decision, and colors significantly affect our choices. Each impacts our brains differently. In fact, color impacts 85% of purchase decisions. As important as using visuals, it is important to use the right colors in these visuals. Most of the time, it is visuals that sell a product. And the magic in these visuals is the color mix used.

When deciding the color use, graphic designers consider the UI design, apps, ads, and branding design. Designing a graphic involves not only designing things but also understanding how these graphic designs will affect the perceiver. Take a moment to imagine a black-and-white visual and then turn to imagine the same graphic with colors. Which one was more appealing? Which incited emotions? The choice is one; it is colors that provoke emotions.

The graphic designer should thoroughly understand colors, color theory, the color wheel, additive, and subtractive color models, and color schemes to mix the right colors for their message successfully. Graphic designers, like artists, know precisely how to use color in graphic design and art to act on the observer's emotions and evoke the ones the campaign needs.

Newton’s color prism in modern representation

The Power Of Color In Graphic Design

Have you ever thought about why we stop when the traffic light is red and cross the street when it is green? Why don't we cross the street when the red goes on and stop when the green light is on? The reason is the message of the colors and the power they carry. The color theory we mentioned earlier is responsible for the power when mixed and the individual colors for transmitting a particular message. The fundamentals of color theory are the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Red, yellow and blue represent the primary colors, whereas the secondary colors are the mixes of primary colors. These make up purple, green, and orange. It's clear to anyone who's taken painting at school. When you didn't have an orange pencil, you'd mix red and yellow to make it; for green, you'd use yellow and blue, and your teacher would recommend mixing blue and red to make purple. You have been using color theory since kindergarten without naming it scientifically.

All colors together and each color individually has significant power and influence. If used intentionally, it can transmit a message without spoken words and convert without pressure. It's worth delving into the power each color holds in detail.

Traffic lights showing red, yellow, and green


Strength, power, resilience – all that red represents. We subconsciously associate red with success, action, passion, and love. From ancient times love and passion have been associated with the warm red color. The first and primary color, red, is warm and, consequently, has warm associations. Red is a rich color and can represent positivity and negativity at the same time. From ancient times it has been used as a sign of love, aggression, and competence. At school and in the street, red is used to show a mistake, a no-no, a don't cross the road, and a stop sign. It grabs the eye and the attention of the perceiver.

Red symbolizes drive and movement toward action. In graphic design, red is used to draw attention or to highlight fundamental elements. This color is widely used by graphic designers when creating a Christmas Facebook cover, working on a Valentine’s day banner, or planning to create movie posters that will drive more attention. It can serve as a warning sign for a user. Red draws attention and therefore drives into action. For stressing and emphasizing some ideas, red is used.


The second primary and warm color, yellow, is a bright and electrifying color for a start. Happiness, Sun, and sunshine are the most common associations with yellow. In ads, the idea of happiness is present, yellow is always there. You'd have noticed that Pharrell Williams's song "Happy" starts with a yellow background, with the text "happy". You'd probably never thought of the reason. Now you know the underlying message. Yellow is synonymous with joy, happiness, and energy.

The brightness of yellow is used in graphic design to convey clarity and warmth. Yellow also has a soothing effect. It is used to reduce anxiety and provoke calmness. The perception of colors is also cultural. For instance, in Japan, yellow is seen as the color of courage, whereas in western culture, yellow is associated with cowardice. Thus, using color in graphic design, the decision is made based on the recipient audience's cultural background and perceptions.


The third color on the primary color list is blue. Blue has been the shade of calmness, refreshment, and peace since ancient times. The emergence of blue was in the Middle Ages. Even though there were blue objects, there was no name or definition. From universal perceptions and perspectives, blue represents confidence, security, freedom, peace, and nostalgia. From a cultural standpoint, blue is seen differently around the world. People have addressed the nobles and royals as having "blue blood", so we may say blue represents nobility and royalty. In the west, blue is seen as the opposite of pink, which is associated with femininity. Even though the concept of masculinity and femininity has been transforming, blue remains the masculine color. However, in Korea, blue is the color of grieving.

From the design perspective, cultural addressees are also important when using color. As a general graphic design rule, light blue is used to represent peacefulness and calm, while dark blue is used for collective designs to promote reliability and trust. The last point is widely used in graphic design, especially when making logos. It is a prevalent color in logo design since it fosters and strengthens trust in the brand. Dark or light shades of the color, navy, pastel, or electric, are used; blue is to draw attention and make a contrast, and its choice shows distinctness and sturdiness.

Primary and secondary colors


The mixture of red, yellow, and orange contains both elements combined with its own reflectiveness and warmth. Orange is a vivid and bright color; it connotes enthusiasm and energy and is associated with the Sun in some eastern cultures. The golden season or autumn is connected with the color since leaves change and fall. This means orange represents change, beauty, and warmth of the season, and graphic designers do not pass by the connotation. From the fruit name, orange represents freshness, health, and liveliness. It is why orange is present on health apps, cookbooks, or food- and health-related products.

Graphic designers use orange to grab the observer's attention and excite positivity and energy. Yet, they are also cautious of its opposite effect. Thus, they use it in decent proportions to keep the design manageable.


Freshness, renewal, and reawakening of wealth, money and power. Green can mean different things to people of various cultural backgrounds, education, and perceptions. Still, one thing is clear, green holds a strong message and when used in the right proportions and combinations, it can speak louder than words. Green is the color of nature and mother Earth. But it also correlated with anger and vice. Thereupon, depending on its shade, tone, or darkness, green can symbolize the reawakening of nature, the power of wealth, or evil and mischief. When using color in graphic design, these associations are kept too. An intriguing fact about the color is that the eye perceives shades of green more than any other color.

Graphic designers often pick green as a safe choice for their primary color, knowing exactly that people love green. It incites harmony and communicates growth and prosperity. Coming from the traffic lights or being the color of money, green is often used to represent safety, security, and comfort. We will frequently see insurance companies using color in their logos. Graphic designers use light lime green as an accent color and bright green to represent energy and sportiness, while darker shades of green draw associations with wealth and money.


The color of royalty and wealth, purple has been available only to the royals and "chosen ones". Back in the day, purple was not everywhere as it is today. Finding the color, wearing purple clothing, or buying purple accessories was more challenging. It was so scarce in nature that people could not produce it as easily as a piece of cake. It was difficult to afford and was only attained by those with fortune. Thus, dark purple has received associations with nobility and affluence. In modern times, the light purple color bears association with tenderness, romance, and love that is gentle.

Since it is rare, it is mystical and magical. The crystal ball is purple, the fortune teller's clothing is seen as purple, and the witches and the witchcraft are purple. Graphic designers use them according to the mentioned perceptions. Dark purple represents riches, while light tones are used for refreshment and spring effects. Purple is a great choice to transmit a sense of luxury and wealth. At the same time, it is used in fantasy topics, feminine product design, and when conveying gentle love and affection.

The Basics Of Color Theory

Physicists are not only responsible for the theory of relativity but also for the color theory, thanks to Newton. In design terms, color theory, or color palettes, is the fundament of combining and applying suitable color mixes for the right effect. The science of color in graphic design is understanding the basics of color theory.

The relation between colors plays an integral part in designing a visual. Colors interact and act on graphic design. The formation and the effect are interrelated and affect the artwork. Let's jump right into understanding this relationship.

The schemes we will discuss are used with different shades, tones, and tints of each color.

The theory of colors in color wheel


The base is the same color used in different intensities for a soothing design effect.


The effect is the combination of three nearby colors in the color wheel we've discussed earlier. One color is selected, and the other two are to the right and left for an utterly analogous effect.


The color scheme is produced from two opposite colors on the color wheel. Opposite colors mean colors placed in opposite directions.

Split complementary

To form this scheme, you should select a color from the color wheel and complement it not with the exact opposite but with one of the two adjacent colors of the opposite.


This scheme is the collection of three equally distant colors. When selecting the colors from the color wheel, the "rule" is to keep a 120° angle between them.


This scheme is composed of four colors and has two complementary pairs (next to each other). We will get a rectangle in the wheel by drawing a line between the selected colors.


The scheme contains four colors from the wheel, which are evenly spaced around.

Key Takeaways

What we take for granted, colors are a phenomenon with a scientific base. We perceive them as an integral part of everyday reality. The influence of colors is great in our lives. Also, there is an excellent theory behind the concept. Visuals, artworks, designs, ads, and products we buy from brands have not chosen colors out of the blue.

Since colors hugely impact our perceptions, graphic designers (and not only) study what ideas underlie the colors and the color mixes. They look closely at the color schemes and each color's meanings. The green and red on the traffic lights are not chosen by whim but because of the study of color meanings, where green represents safety and red warns to be cautious.

After reading this guide on colors, particularly color in graphic design, you will now pay close attention to your surroundings, know what message your favorite brand logos have, and know how to use colors to convey the right word.

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Meri Minasyan

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