A winning palette elicits a desired mood or communicates an idea — and it starts by being familiar with a few fundamental laws of color and its properties.
Have you ever struggled to communicate clearly about color with your designer? Perhaps a color doesn’t seem to resonate or appear to fit the company persona yet you’re unable to articulate what it is about that particular blue.
Understanding some basic terminology—physical properties that allow us to distinguish and define colors—will provide you with a framework for your next conversation around color.
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. Much of this language is cultural—in the United States, the color red can represent anger or energy while blue represents calm and relaxation. 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:
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.
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:
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.
Seven color properties and their meaning:
Hue is the most common name of a color such as red, blue, green, etc.
When we need to be even more descriptive, we can do so by using two hue names in combination. For instance the green shown below is more accurately described as “yellow-green”. The blue is better described as a blue-purple.
Chroma is the purity of a color.
Colors with a high chroma have not been diluted with black, white or gray. These colors (shown below) appear very vivid and well…pure. Colors with a high chroma are exhilarating and attract attention, by and large making them good choices for advertising to teens or young adults. Frequently, chroma is confused with saturation; however, they refer to two distinct situations, as we will explain.
Saturation refers to the strength or weakness of a color.
Saturation can also be referred to as the intensity of a color. In the row below the colors are different hues of the same saturation or intensity. Pastel colors such as these have low or weak saturation and tend to produce a calming environment.
The second example below shows color of the same hue (blue,) but different levels of saturation or fullness. The pale blue on the far left has a weaker saturation than the navy blue on the far right with a strong, full saturation.
Value refers to how light or dark a color is.
Lighter colors have higher values. For example yellow has a higher value than navy blue. Black has the lowest value of any color, and white the lightest. Generally speaking, when applying color values to your design, using high contrast values typically result in more aesthetically pleasing designs.
You might also hear your designer refer to tints, tones and shades.
Quite simply, a tint is created by adding white to a color; making it lighter than the original. Tones are created by adding gray to a color’ making it duller than the original; and shades are created by adding black to a color, making it darker than the original.
To sum it up, as a marketer, the more you know about color, the better you can use it to meet the goals of your next project. By mastering these basic concepts you will develop a richer color vocabulary, better articulate your color preferences, and ensure you and your designer our speaking the same language… of color.
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)
Josef Albers, The Interaction of Color. (Yale University Press, 1963).
David Sommers, “History of the Color Wheel,” www.colourlovers.com, May 8, 2008.
By Donna DeLeo, ETMG Graphic Designer