Color schemes:

  • Monochromatic: this is a color scheme that uses only one hue or a combination of tints, shades and pastels of that hue e.g. a combination of reds from pale pink through to deep red.

  • Complementary: this scheme uses two colors opposite each other on the color wheel. Either of these two colors should dominate the scheme with the other color (a tint, shade, pastel, high or low chroma) playing a secondary role. Where two and more colors are used within a scheme one should be predominant, the scheme should be constructed around this. Complementary colors (such as red and green) are associated with contrast. They can be used to add movement and vibrancy to the design. Contrasting colors can create a more dominant or aggressive look.

  • Analogous: this scheme is based on two or three adjacent colors on the color wheel. An analogous scheme is basically and naturally a harmonious one. One hue should be selected as the dominant color and the others provide a supporting role. Analogous colors or those adjacent to each other on the color wheel create more harmonious color combinations. They create a more harmonious feel and can be used to convey softer moods and quieter emotions. They usually pull the design together.

  • Double complementary: this one is based upon two pairs of complementary hues fairly close together on the color wheel e.g. orange and blue, and yellow-orange and blue-violet.

  • Split complementary: this scheme is based on one hue plus the two hues on either side of that hues complimentary. Here the hue, which is opposite the two complementary colors, is the dominant one and again the two remaining hues play a supporting role. The split complementary provides a less contrasting scheme than the complementary.

  • Triadic: this scheme involves three hues. They are equally spaced around the color wheel e.g. yellow, red and blue. Again, one hue should dominate and even this is unlikely to be used in its pure chromatic state, with the correct application triadic color schemes can be exciting or subdued, and the variations and applications are numerous.

  • Tetrad: this a color scheme based on four hues equally spaced around the color wheel e.g. yellow, orange, violet and blue.

Here’s a quick reference guide for the common meanings of few colors (in Western culture):

  • Red: Passion, Love, Anger

  • Orange: Energy, Happiness, Vitality

  • Yellow: Happiness, Hope, Deceit

  • Green: New Beginnings, Abundance, Nature

  • Blue: Calm, Responsible, Sadness

  • Purple: Creativity, Royalty, Wealth

  • Black: Mystery, Elegance, Evil

  • Gray: Moody, Conservative, Formality

  • White: Purity, Cleanliness, Virtue

  • Brown: Nature, Wholesomeness, Dependability

  • Tan or Beige: Conservative, Piety, Dull

  • Cream or Ivory: Calm, Elegant, Purity

Printed matter: In the case of printed matter designers need to work with subtractive colors. This is because each color printed on to a stock (paper) subtracts from white and if the three primaries overlap the result will be black. The term “full color job” refers to four color printing where, in order to achieve a full range of colors, printers use CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key color which is black. Sometimes an additional color known as “Spot color” is used and for this designers should use a universal color matching system called Pantone.

Screen matter: this one uses additive colors, made up of red, green and blue lights, which when combined produce white light. Screen based colors always appear brighter than printed colors, so just be aware that what is being viewed on-screen will not be reproducible in print, never.

When we start working on a piece of design you need to ask yourself what message the visual idea needs to deliver. Colors help in bringing and added association of meaning and feeling. Colors can be quiet and passive, or bold and harsh and so can be used effectively to express the emotion of the piece. Also legibility in graphic design is hugely important. It will be affected by the colors selected, the background on which they site and the size and shape of type or image being used. The rules of this tool are pretty strict, but if you pass all the test, your users/viewers will never have problem reading the text. (Although the new Google Inbox hardly passes one of the tests - just saying…) As a guide good legibility is achieved when the ground and the color placed on it are opposite e.g violet (the color closest to black) on white.

So, memory, experience, history and culture all play a part in the way we perceive colors. It’s not like we perceive colors differently, just that those perceptions have different meanings depending on psychology and cultural background. Red doesn’t have the instant conventional association with “Stop” in countries where vehicles are still rare. In the 19th century, green was associated with poison (because of its links to arsenic) whereas today it’s considered as the color of nature, spring and environmental awareness. In the UK if you want to post a letter you’d be looking around for a red postbox whereas if you’re in the US it’d be blue. Also the type of profession you’re designing for may also influence what colors you might select for your design, for example blue means reliable, corporate in finance but it means death and poison in medical industry. So you see that it’s very important to be aware of the environmental and cultural connotations that colors may hold within the market you are designing for.

Useful tools: Kuler and Color Scheme Designer

Further reading on colors: Smashing Mag collection and Worqx