A Guide to Colour Theory (With Examples of Colour Meanings)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 10, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When designing logos, products, and user interfaces, designers often follow a variety of rules and guidelines which ensure their use of colours is meaningful and visually appealing. Using these guidelines is adhering to colour theory, which informs designers of the best ways to use colour to maximum effect. Understanding the principles of this design theory and how best to apply them is key to creating designs which relate to colour-related consumer instincts while being visually pleasing. In this article, we define colour theory, explain how it works, relate its principles to design, and provide examples of colour in common uses.

What is colour theory?

Modern colour theory is a series of visual guidelines which help designers select colours of complimentary schemes which can sometimes communicate themes or concepts. In consumer or user design, these theories are important for establishing visually pleasing patterns. They also help with using psychological relationships that people have with particular colours to create meaning in their designs. This theory initiated an understanding of colour as a matter of perception, with all colours having various relationships with others, and being complimentary or not.

Types of colour

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton categorized all colours as belonging to one of three groups on a colour wheel. Within these types of colour, any conceivable colour can fit into a category based on its composition. Here are the three major types of colour:

  • Primary: blue, yellow, or red

  • Secondary: mixes comprising primary colours

  • Tertiary: mixed comprising primary and secondary colours

Properties of colour

Along with the categories of colour, there are several properties to consider. These properties are also essential for designers to know, as they often affect the tone or general effect of a colour scheme. The essential properties of colour are:

  • Lighting: the saturation or paleness of a colour

  • Chroma: a colour's purity, whether with black shades, white tints, or grey tones

  • Hue: the specific appearance of a colour

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How does colour theory work in design?

UX design, or user interface or experience design, benefits from designers who consciously understand and use the theory of colours with intention. Using colour in design relies on knowledge of colour schemes which work well together, plus understanding of how colours relate to various associations people have with individual colour palettes. One of the most universal colour range associations is that of colour temperature, or using warm or cold colours.

Warm colours are those which inclusively range from red to yellow on the colour wheel, and relate to associations of the sun, fire, and heat. Cold colours range from yellowy-green to violet, and evoke associations of ice, water, and shadows. These two fundamental colour palates are equally useful in design, as they each have strong positive associations. Colder colours are appropriate where truth, transparency, and reliability are desirable connotations. Warmer colours can evoke connotations or comfort, fun, or excitement. With selective choosing of colour temperature, designers can reinforce the context of their designs.

Types of colour schemes to use in design

With screen design, most designers use red, green, and blue as the primary colours in the additive colour model. Establishing harmony in design means selecting colour which work together with others to be visually pleasing. These are colour schemes which designers select for a variety of purposes, and each scheme works by using different relationships between colours. Here is a list of the most common colour schemes with a brief description of each:

  • Complementary: These are colours in opposite positions on the colour wheel which complement each other.

  • Compound harmony or split complementary: You use this scheme when incorporating additional colours from either side of a complementary pair of colours. This effect reduces contrast.

  • Analogous: Using three colours which are next to each other on a colour wheel, such as yellow, orange, and a colour in-between the two results in an analogous scheme.

  • Monochromatic: This is a single hue with various tints and shades of the same colour.

  • Triadic: This is a harmonious scheme using three colours from 120 degrees apart or equal distances on the wheel. The colours within this scheme are complementary to each other and can create visually pleasing designs when present together.

  • Tetradic: This scheme works with four colours comprising two sets of complementary pairs, with one of the colours being dominant. These designs have rich contrast, but require a designer to balance the cold and warm colours.

  • Square: This is a type of tetradic scheme, but comprises four colours, each evenly spaced 90 degrees from each other on the wheel. This varies from tetradic schemes in that it doesn't require a dominant colour, but can allow equal use of colours within the scheme.

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Colour and context

Advancing from the use of colour temperatures, there are several other colour connotations, which conscientious designers can use to improve the impact of their designs. It's important to note that colours don't have an intrinsic meaning, but that they gain significance through personal, societal, or historical associations. For instance, you may consider the colour orange. In the right context, orange can mean excitement and correlate to a summertime association. Orange can also signify caution or warning when related to traffic lights, construction sites, or pylons. Here are a few other contexts in which colours can gain meaning:

Social and political

Because every country has a flag, colours and groups of them often have geographical associations related to the colours of various flags. There are also flags which represent social or political movements, many of which have notable colour schemes. For designers, understanding the connotations that some colour combinations can have is important for avoiding cross-contextualizing their work.

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Health and vitality

Certain colours are effective in relating to themes of health and vitality. Light-green and yellow colours can often have this connotation, as many fresh fruits and vegetables are bright green or yellow. This also presents an association of freshness, naturalness, or nutrition, which can be effective when marketing produce or products with a focus on health.

Excitement and passion

Red is a colour with a common and recognizable association with excitement, activity, and passion. This colour creates a sense of urgency and action, and is attention-grabbing. Red can also relate to power and strength. Its association with heat and flames can also make it an effective colour for high-energy contexts.

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Trust and honesty

Many banks use dark blue because of its ability to relate to themes of trust and honesty, which are qualities they wish to portray themselves as having to prospective clients. Blue also has related associations of intelligence and clarity, making it a common colour for social media logos and platforms, particularly those related to news and media. Even car brands often use blue in their logs to insinuate their reliability and durability.

Strength and stability

Strength and stability is often an association created but neglecting colour altogether by using black and white themes. Many sports equipment brands use black and white in their logos to link to a connotation of power and confidence. Using black and white together without variable hues or tones can also have a connotation of simplicity or minimalism, directing focus to other aspects of branding such as the messaging or imagery.

Wisdom and respect

Purple is a common colour for denoting themes of wisdom and respect. Royalty has long been an association of the colour purple, due to the historical rarity and related high price of violet dye. Muted purple colours such as lilac or lavender have associations with calm and peace, and are common choices for wellness and therapy brands.

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Happiness and enthusiasm

Yellow is a colour that branding commonly associates with happiness and enthusiasm. Many hues of yellow relate to summertime and the sun, sunflowers, and smiley faces. Yellow also relates to joy, brightness, and freedom, which makes it a common colour for branding aimed at children or child products with a parental marketing aim.

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