How to use colours effectively in design

The more technical approach to get you designing with colour!

Colour scheming may seem like an easy task but actually it can become quite complex. Depending on how technical you wish to be. Especially identifying which colours work well together in design considering the theme or subject matter. A colour wheel can be used to iron out any wrinkles in determining possibilities or at least give you a basis to get started. This example uses ‘The artists colour wheel’ – a 12 step colour wheel.

A 12 Step colour wheel with tints and shades

colours in the artists 12 step colour wheel

Using complementary colours

Complementary colours are found this way. Find a colour you’d like to start with on the colour wheel and locate the colour directly opposite (its complement). For example if you pick yellow as your base colour. The complementary colour would be purple which is on the opposite side of the wheel. It’s advisable to keep within the same ring of colour too (0-4). A tinted (whitened) yellow in the ring labelled 0 would not work so well with the perfect hue of purple in the ring labelled 1.

What are contrasting colours?

These colours are selected and used to focus in on a particular colour. A contrasting colour scheme would be selecting a colour on the 12 step colour wheel then choosing either colour next to its opposite. You’ll end up with just two colours – a warm colour and a cool colour. An example would be selecting yellow as our base colour, then finding the opposite’s neighbour’s. Purple is the opposite and its neighbours are (left) blue-purple and (right) pink. Yellow is warm and so is pink so we’d use yellow as the base (warm) colour and blue-purple as the secondary (cool) colour.

Analogue colours

An analogue is a set of 3 hue’s all adjacent to each other. For example red, pink and purple, or pink, purple and blue-purple. These can be put to more effective use if you choose the dominant colours of your design carefully. You may also want to stick to either warm or cool colours. Analogue colours are often seen in the natural world, and nature very rarely gets it wrong!

Split complementary colours

Comprising of 3 colours, this system is exactly the same as the contrasting colours section above however, instead you use both neighbour colours of the opposite of your base colour. So for example, if purple was your chosen base colour, you’d use both the colours next to the opposite or complement colour. To the left of yellow (the complement colour) you have the grassy green colour. To the right of yellow you have the burnt yellow or egg yolk yellow. These will be your split complementary colours.

Triad colours

This scheme uses the rule of 3rd’s. Pick a colour and count along four. This is your next colour and again count along four for your last hue. Simple maths of 12 divided by 3 (3rds) equals 4. For example if you are choosing red as your first colour, you’d then end up with a primary blue from counting along four in a clockwise direction. You would get yellow from counting along a further four from the blue. This can work with all tints and shades no matter what your starting colour.

Use colours to create amazing designs and to convey messages or emotions!

These schemes are the basic ones and more commonly used. There are many others such as the Tetrad and Double Complimentary, starting to sound really technical there! Colour has a huge effect on overall composition of a design, the way its perceived and also meaning. Everyone is different and may see things differently but there are ways of conveying certain things using particular colours such as mood and temperature. Don’t feel obliged to use the colour wheel and colour pairings to pick all of your colour schemes, use your own judgement. The colour wheel is there as a technical guide, or a basis if you will. There are thousands of colour combinations to use, they are all at our disposal.