Color Theory for Graphic Design: Using Shades, Tints, and Tones to Enhance Your Visual Message

by Alabaweh Baweh -
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Regardless of the purpose or content of your design, color is an essential part of its overall impact. The right combination of color elements adds an emotional impact to your message. This can draw and hold attention and motivate the viewer to complete your desired action. Color theory is the artistic practice of combining different hues to create visuals with more depth than their monotone counterparts. Using this set of guidelines can help you craft graphics that please the eye, convert viewers into buyers, and keep your design clients coming back for more.

The Basics of Color Theory

The primary goal of color theory in design is to apply colors in a way that is harmonious and attractive. It's a well-known fact that some colors simply don't look good next to others. Rather than spending time in trial and error in an attempt to find the perfect combination, color theory makes it easier to choose complementary colors that enhance each other. Three major components make color theory work.

The Color Wheel

This tool divides the visible light spectrum into 12 unique colors. There are three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue). Combining the primary colors creates three secondary colors (green, orange, and purple). In between these are tertiary hues, which are the colors that result from the combination of the primary and secondary colors as you travel around the wheel. More advanced wheels also include tints (colors mixed with white), shades (colors mixed with black), and tones (colors mixed with gray).


Color Harmony

Clashing colors can make your graphics viewers feel uncomfortable, and a plain palette can make them bored or fail to even notice your message. A harmonious blend of colors encourages pleasant feelings in the viewer, which can stimulate them to take positive action. Color harmony can be achieved by using colors that are analogous (colors that are side-by-side on the color wheel), complementary (colors situated directly across the color wheel from each other), or based on patterns and blends commonly seen in nature (such as the coloring of plants, animals, and naturally occurring stones).


Color Context

This principle relates to the way colors act in combination with other colors. Imagine a plain red square. When placed against a black background, that square will appear much brighter and more vibrant than if the same square were situated on an orange square. That is because our brains are wired to consider the whole picture rather than just one piece of the puzzle at a time. Color relativity allows artists to create the illusion of extra colors, make specific elements stand out, or camouflage parts of their content without the addition of more color.

When applied together, these simple elements allow graphic designers to flesh out their designs in a way that evokes the desired response.

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Complementary Colors: Choosing the Right Tones and Shades for Your Design

The true power of color theory lies in complementary colors. Finding the right foundation of color combinations is the key to creating a viable design. Using the color wheel to achieve a harmonious relationship between your design elements helps you create graphics with more depth than can be achieved with monotone or two-tone coloring.

Creating your color palette begins with choosing a foundational color. Once you decide what color will form the base for your design, you can use color harmony techniques to broaden your palette without clashing. Use these tips to ensure your color choices are always complementary.

Decide what emotional response you're looking for.

Warm colors like yellow, orange, and red are associated with action, comfort, and energy. Cooler colors like blue and green evoke a sense of calmness, trust, and reassurance. You can mix warm and cool colors to create a custom emotional message. However, be careful not to overdo it or you could end up confusing your audience.


Use neutral colors to fill out your color palette without watering down your emotional content.

Neutral colors can also be used to make brighter colors stand out more. Black and white are the most-used neutral colors. Muted browns like beige, tan, and taupe are other options that take up space without weighing down surrounding elements.


Make single color jobs less drab by applying shades, tints, and tones.

Mixing any color with white, black, or both retains the emotional qualities of the color while allowing you to make certain elements pop. This allows you to subtly add emotional depth to your visual message. For example, mixing a fiery red with a tinted pink adds sweetness to your visual. Using a darker burgundy with that same red evokes a sense of dangerous passion.


Limit your palette to three shades, maximum.

Regardless of how complementary the colors are, too many elements are confusing to your viewer's brain. Too many competing colors makes your design look cluttered, sloppy, or simply unattractive. Once again, tints and shades are a great way to fill out extra space without adding more color than you need.


Stick with either analogous or complementary coloring.

With an analogous palette, you can use both colors on either side of your base color on the color wheel. Complementary palettes let you easily choose accent colors that make your base color stand out. Using the two techniques together, however, can easily lead to a cluttered and complicated design that repels viewers.


Don't be afraid to play with natural color palettes.

Taking inspiration from nature doesn't have to mean sticking to the expected color scheme. Instead, add a little personal touch by substituting natural colors with their complementary counterpart. For example, the green shades and tints of your favorite potted plant will work just as well if you switch the base color to purple. Use the natural design as a template to create your own color patterns.


Use the same palette throughout your work.

Whether you're designing a website or drawing up a graphic for your clients' uniforms, use the same color palette throughout your work to ensure continuity of message.

    Like any skill, learning how to use the color wheel to create design elements takes time and experience. Practice mixing palettes in your spare time so you are ready when your client needs some help choosing the right colors for their project.

    Make Color Palettes an Added Value Offering for Your Design Clients

    Making your own custom mix of colors is a great way to help spur your design clients' creativity. Create premade digital files with various emotional intents that showcase your ability to use color effectively. Use these templates to help your clients see how color affects their final message and increase their overall satisfaction with your final work.