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Color Relationships: How Can You Use Colors More Effectively?

When designing or re-evaluating your webpage or marketing visuals, it’s important to understand some key concepts of color theory.

First, think about your business and/or products and their visual style or identity. Is there a color, theme or feeling that emerges? Explore this and once you find it, use it consistently throughout your branding identity. Design works best when its color usage allows the viewer to see the content of the visual space- when color, value and imagery work together. People often notice color before imagery, so take some time to really think about what color branding means to you and your business. Color can be theorized as a sensation that allows us to describe what we see. Understanding color concepts and what colors portray about your company and products can be an effective marketing tool.

Whether or not you know the color(s) that send the right message about your business, read on about color concepts and relationships and their effect in design. Generally, compositions, including marketing material and web design, often work best when there is a dominance of one color at work. Few colors over a wide area generally create a more intense lasting impression than many colors over a narrow area.

Primary colors (red, blue, yellow) attract the eye, are most stable (a strong, attention- grabbing color), most recognizable and offers the greatest contrast (creates visual interest in comparison to other colors). They work well in small quantities and are especially great in small areas that you wish the eye to navigate towards (think upper and lower areas and corners). If used in the middle of a composition or over large areas, they tend to overshadow everything else, causing a jarring effect and/or color to be seen before imagery or text.

Secondary colors (violet, orange, green) are considered less stable than primary colors but are very compatible with other colors and function well in large masses.

Tertiary colors (yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green) are considered the least stable or attention-grabbing and create the least contrast. They can become more dominant when used in greater proportion to primary colors or with dulled primary colors. These colors work well over large spaces.

Color wheels are a great way to see how colors relate to one another and can generate some design ideas, but they are not strict formulas to creating a successful design.

  • A monochromatic color relationship involves one color where value, temperature and purity of the color (adding white, black or gray) offer variety.
  • Analogous colors are colors that are side by side on the color wheel (e.g, violet, red-violet and red). Because they are similar, they tend blend together, create a sense of depth and produce serene and comfortable designs. Make sure to use enough contrast (light versus dark) with this scheme and pay attention to how this scheme works harmoniously when the color in common with all colors used is used in the largest proportion.
  • Complementary color relationships use colors that are across from each other on the color wheel (red and green, yellow and violet, blue and orange). These colors enhance one another and can also create tension and interest depending on placement. Complementary colors create balance in your design. Play with how far or close they are to one another; the intensity of the colors will increase as they get closer to one another and distance will provide greater balance will less color intensity. When a pair of high intensity complements (a primary with secondary color, such as red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet) are placed side by side, they seem to vibrate and draw attention. In low intensity complements (tertiaries or less saturated primaries and secondaries), this close proximity intensity is not as harsh.
  • More visually complex and interesting schemes exist. A split complementary relationship (the combination of one color and the colors on each side of its complement, such as red, blue, green). This combination is easier to work with than a straight complementary, offers more variety and has the same visual contrast with less tension than complementary schemes. Triad relationships use three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel (orange, violet, green) These combinations are vibrant, even with pale or unsaturated versions of your color. To use this combination successfully, let one color dominate and use the other two for accents.
  • Square/double complementary color combinations involve evenly spacing a square around the color wheel (resulting in 2 complementary pairs). This scheme along with a rectangular color combination, offers a lot of variety, but can be tricky. It is best to let one color be dominant and pay attention to warm and cool colors in these color combinations. Color schemes from most to least contrast are as follows: complementary, triad, split complementary, double complementary, analogous, and monochromatic.

So what works for you? Do you find one combination more appealing than another?  Do you find that one color works well on the web but doesn’t work with print branding or vice versa? What tools do you like to use to test out color palettes? Around here, we love the and, but we’d love to hear about others!