Elegance, style and balance. When looking at a well designed piece, whether it is a logo, a website or a painting, we are absorbed by the colours. In designing, picking colours for a piece is not necessarily just about what the designer thinks looks good. Countless amounts of research have shown that people can be affected with exposure to colours, whether its a behavioural or emotional. It takes around 90 seconds for an individual to make a subconscious judgement on an item or person, and 60-80% of the judgement is made up by the colours the subject is perceiving.
To really understand colour harmony, you need to look at the basics of colour theory. I remember back in High School when I took Art GCSE we looked at certain colour properties especially the colour wheel and saturation. Anyone who has had art classes or studied design already know the principles behind colour properties and in particular, the colour wheel.
Initially formed in the 1660s by Issac Newton, the colour wheel is built of the primary, secondary and tertiary colours, in a pragmatic way.
This colour wheel shows shades pastels, midtones and brights as well as the pragmatic order of colour. It can easily be split into different colour schematics from simple monotone, warm and cold and complementary.
It’s easier to separate the colours into temperature and saturation to describe their psychological effects so here are some of the emotions portrayed:
Hot – Aggressive and attention grabbing. Normally seen on news based websites, check out BBC, CNN, Reuters etc. They all lean towards warmer colours, whether it is is their logos or web design.
Warm – Softer reds, oranges and yellows are more welcoming to us. Warmer tones are associated with inviting and welcoming designs, usually accent colours in waiting areas.
Cool– Purples, softer blues and greens give a meditative effect. Usually brings us back to nature with the association of relaxing flowers such as lavender.
Cold – Blues are associated with ice, water and freshness. Think a combination of blue, turquoise and green. Most associated with freshness these colours are often used in packaging for laundry detergent and air fresheners.
Pastels – Used to reflect the white space they are in. Often offices or hospitals will be painted in pastel shades to make the space look larger and more refreshing.
Pale – These colours are tints with a lot of white giving a faded effect. We often associate these colours with youth and innocence. Think to products for young children such as baby clothing and products. These colours are often associated with femininity too, most female products being pastel shades.
Brights – Usually the Primary colours or bold brights of secondary colours, think the use of these combinations by artists such as Mondrian or Andy Warhol. These are attention-grabbers and great for stand out products and websites.
Now we have the basis of temperatures, it also good to know the break-down of individual colours:
Red – relates to energetic, passionate, action, ambition, love, anger, aggressive and determination. In some Asian cultures the colour red is lucky. In India it is seen as the colour of purity.
Orange – relates to adventurous, social, communicative, optimistic, enthusiasm, falsity, superficial and pessimism. It is perceived as a sacred colour in many cultures, as well as eternal happiness.
Yellow – relates to cheerfulness, fun, good-humored, confidence, originality, creativity, challenging, academic , wisdom, judgmental, impatient, impulsive, spiteful, cowardly and deceitful. In the middle east, yellow represents happiness and good fortune.
Green – relates to growth and vitality, renewal and restoration, self-reliance, nature, balance, possessive and materialistic, indifferent, envious, selfish, greedy, inconsiderate and calm. In western cultures it is also perceived as lucky, whereas in Indonesia it is a forbidden colour. In the middle east, green represents youth, fertility and wealth.
Blue – relates to loyalty, trust, reliability, responsibility, conservatism, caring, contemplation, peaceful, depressed, passive, superstitious, predictable, aloof and frigid. It also promotes healing and safeguarding from evil in a lot of cultures.
Purple – relates to individual, creative and inventive, psychic and intuitive, humanitarian, mystery, fantasy, royalty, cynicism, arrogance, fraudulence. Purple has traditionally been associated with royalty and with that wealth. In Brazil and Thailand, purple is associated with mourning and honouring the dead.
Pink – relates to romantic love, compassion and understanding, nurturing, romance, warmth, hope, calming, sweetness, naiveté, femininity, physically weak, over-emotional, over-cautious.
Brown – represents the down-to-earth, wholesome, practical, approachable, friendly, stable, structured, supportive, comforting, reliable, protective, dull, boring, frugal, materialistic, lack of humor, lack of sophistication, predictable and cheap.
Black – relates to comfort, strong, contained, formal, sophisticated, seductive, mysterious, pessimistic, secretive and withholding, conservative, serious and powerful. It represents masculinity in some African cultures and represents rebirth and mourning in the middle east.
White – represents innocence, purity, cleanliness, equality, complete, simplicity, immaculate, self-sufficient, pristine, terile, stark, fastidious, empty, isolated, cautious, plain, distant and unimaginative. Western cultures the colour white symbolizes purity, peace, and cleanliness. But in Asian cultures, such as China and Korea, white represents death, mourning, and bad luck, and is traditionally worn at funerals.
Let’s move onto the basic colour schematics. These aren’t necessarily all the colour schematics there are, just the most frequently used ones with examples.
One colour on the wheel with multiple shade gradients from dark to light.
The primary colours: yellow, blue and red.
The secondary colours: green, purple and orange.
Directly opposite each other on the colour wheel. Red and Green, Blue and Orange, Yellow and Purple.
No saturation just shades.
Any three hues next to each other on the colour wheel.
Research on psychology and colour theory:
Useful colour scheme tool: