Color Theory for Marketers – How to Create a Winning Palette for Your Next Project

by Donna DeLeo – ETMG Designer and Art Director

As a creative professional, I’m often asked to explain, or in some cases, defend my design choices. One of the most subjective choices I make each day is color. Why? Because color is evocative – it can dramatically affect moods, feelings, and emotions.

Color is not simply a decorative afterthought, it’s a powerful tool for all designers. By leveraging color to the fullest extent, it can influence a viewer’s perception of your product or services.

Color is a uniquely emotional language. Try this simple test. Close your eyes and visualize a bright red. Did you feel a jolt of energy? Now try a soft blue. Do your shoulders start to relax?

“In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.”  – Joseph Albers

According to Gunter Wyszecki in his book, Color, the human eye can perceive over 10,000,000 colors. Color is also constantly changing. It is seen and influenced in relation to the colors around it. Take the example below:

Demonstration of green affected by background color

The green in both diagrams is the same. However, it appears as two very different shades of green because it’s interacting with the color in the background.

With such a vast number of colors in the visible spectrum and its fluid nature, how can we make successful color choices? We can start by applying color theory, a set of guiding principles for developing aesthetically pleasing color relationships. These ideas are represented in a variety of diagrams. One of the most widely used of these diagrams is the color wheel developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1706.

12-step Color Wheel

This is a 12-step color wheel consisting of 12 pure colors that are equidistant.

We can use the color wheel as a tool to help us select and combine color, and create harmonious palettes. Let’s look at five basic color relationships we can establish from it:

Complementary Colors - Example Color Wheel

Complementary: Color pairs that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel.

Analogous Colors - Example Color Wheel

Analogous: A group of two or more colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel.

Triadic - Example Color Wheel

Triadic: Three colors equally spaced around color wheel

Double Complementary - Example Color Wheel

Double Complementary: A combination of two pairs of complementary colors.

Split Complementary - Example Color Wheel

Split Complementary: A variation of the complementary color scheme. Starting with a base color, it uses the two colors adjacent to its complement.

Any of the above relationships can be used as a starting point for creating a color harmony— a color relationship that is visually appealing and balanced.

In my next post, I’ll share more steps to create a winning palette — one that elicits a desired mood or communicates an idea — by being familiar with a few fundamental laws of color and its properties.


Adams Morioka and Terry Stone, Color Design Workbook: A Real World Guide to Using Color in Graphic Design (Rockport Publisher, 2006), 6.

Gunter Wyszecki, Color. (Chicago: World Book Inc, 2006), 824.

Josef Albers, The Interaction of Color. (Yale University Press, 1963).

David Sommers, “History of the Color Wheel,, May 8, 2008.

Further Reading:

If Content is King, Typography is the Jack-of-All-Trades

5 Things You Must Do With Visual Content

Photography’s Rule of Thirds and Why It Works

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