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Color Theory 101: Using Color in Graphic Design (Part 1)

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Color Theory 101: Using Color in Graphic Design (Part 1)

From the Color Wheel to Color Psychology, there's a lot to learn about using color in graphic design. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I cover the basics of color theory for graphic design, the emotion of color and how to use color effectively in your projects.

In this blog, we're going to talk about color and why it is SO important in your graphic design. Color can make or break a design and we're going to talk about all aspects of it. This is part one of a two-part series. So, stay tuned at the end for more info on what's coming next and also a free resource that I'm going to give you a link to.

The first thing we're going to cover today is the color wheel. Most people have probably seen it, some version anyway. Here's what mine looks like:

We're going to break it down. Don't worry. Almost everyone has heard of primary colors. You got it. It's red, yellow, and blue. Secondary colors are made simply by mixing the primary colors together. So red and yellow gives you orange, blue and red gives you violet or purple as it's more commonly known, and blue and yellow gives you green. Do you know what a tertiary color is? We're going to do some more color mixing! Tertiary colors are made when you add a primary to a secondary color. So we've got red-violet, red-orange, yellow-green, yellow-orange, blue-violet, and blue-green.

All right, now I'm going to give you some color terminology. We'll discuss hue and saturation, and then look at the difference between a tint, a shade, and a tone. When we talk about hue, we're talking about the very pure form of a color. Saturation on the other hand is the intensity of that color. So, the more saturated the color is the more intense and vibrant it's going to appear. If you decrease saturation, it's going to appear more dull.

Now, let's talk about the difference between tint, shade and tone, as these can be very easily confused. The first one, tint, is what you get when you add white to a color. A shade is what you get when you add black to a color and tone simply means that you're adding both. You're adding gray to a color.

Now that we've got the basics of the color wheel down, let's talk about the two different color models. Two other color terms that you may hear are RGB and CMYK. One has to do with light. And one has to do with pigment.

We'll talk about CMYK first because that's the one that most people are familiar with when they think about the color wheel that we just covered.

When you learned about color mixing in school, whether that was kindergarten finger painting or an art class in college, you most likely learned with the CMYK color model. C M Y K stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The K stands for black because they didn't want to get confused with blue, I guess! CMYK is also the color model that you'll use if you're doing any graphic design work that is going to be printed.

If you're going to do design work that's going to be mainly digital, on the web or on a screen, you're going to actually be using the RGB model - that stands for red, green, and blue: the main colors of light. The RGB color model is actually additive. You get the different colors by mixing them and adding the light together. When you add all the light together, you actually get white. Now, it's a little hard to wrap your mind around how red and green light make yellow. There's a great video on YouTube that explains it way better than I could. You can watch that HERE.

Next, we're going to briefly go over each of the colors and the different feelings and emotions that they can bring to your designs when you use them.

When you use WHITE in your designs, it can convey emotions like purity, innocence, simplicity, hope, light, honesty, and cleanliness.

BLACK, on the other hand, can convey the idea of formality, strength, authority, power, drama, even mystery or intelligence.

Now let's move on to RED. Of course, everyone associates it with romance and love, but it's also associated with a feeling of warmth, energy and intensity, even anger and danger. So be careful when you use it in your designs and use it sparingly! That's a ProTip!

ORANGE is also associated with energy, but you can also use it to convey coziness, excitement, enthusiasm, even competence. You can also use it to bring across an idea of change in your designs, or even happiness.

YELLOW is also going to convey happiness, optimism and cheerfulness, in your designs. Yellow is also very intense and can convey caution or youth. And it's also associated with hunger. You'll see it in a lot of fast foods.

When you see GREEN, do you think fresh, natural, growth, healing, tranquility, money? Green can bring all of these feelings or emotions into your design. Use it carefully!

Using BLUE in your designs can bring about a sense of calm, sincerity, truth, stability, even loyalty or wisdom, but be careful because you could also evoke a sense of sadness depending on the shade that you use. That's a pro tip!

PURPLE is often used to represent royalty, luxury wealth, sophistication, and respect, but it can also be used to evoke creativity or even to represent spirituality.

Okay, here's a bonus for you. I know we didn't really cover PINK separately in our color wheel, but remember it's a tint of red. (we added white) and it's one of the hottest colors trending right now, so I wanted to include it in this list. Depending on the shade of pink that you use, you can convey everything from the traditional romance, passion and love to a sense of gentleness and calm, femininity, even vibrancy.

A few more pro tips for you... With red, like I said, it's really intense color. So just make sure you use it sparingly as an accent in your designs. Orange, not quite so much. You can get away with using a little bit more in a wider area of the design. Yellow with a bright yellow, it's a great as a pop of color. If you're using a more muted yellow, and it's going to bring a lot of energy to your design. With green, the brighter it is the more energy it's going to bring. So just keep that in mind. Blue and purple, the shade really matters, and it's going to make a difference in the feeling and the emotion that you bring out. So just play around with it and find the right version, the right shade for the design that you're doing. And overall, just remember to take your time when choosing your colors and try a few different versions, compare them, see what feels best, what makes sense for your design.

And the other thing is just to make sure that you are designing in the color space that your final design is going to be in. Make sure that if you're designing for the web for something digital, that you're already designing an RGB and you're ready to go. If you're designing something for print design in the CMYK color space and print out some of your drafts, print them at home or take them down to the print shop and just see what they're actually going to look like. Now, every printer of course is different, but at least we'll give you a better idea of what you're actually going to see on the other end.

I put together a little handout with all the graphics from this video for you and you can grab that HERE, but you are going to need a password to access it. And that's can be found in the YouTube video at the 9:00 timestamp.

Click here to head over to my YouTube channel to grab a FREE printable handout with all the info.

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