Colour Theory: How To Create A Rainbow

Colours are a very important part of any brand strategy. Sometimes when you think of a brand, the colours in their logo spring to mind first. For example, when you think ‘fast food’ you think of the colour red (because of Red Rooster, KFC and McDonalds). As humans it’s in our nature to visualise – we are incredibly visual creatures. You only have to scroll through Instagram and the photos and videos that are full of vibrant colour have the most love. That’s because these kinds of images catch our attention, and we react to that.

You don’t have to be a designer or an artist to understand how the principles of colour theory. In fact, these visual and colour principles are rather simple…

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Colours

Primary colours are colours that cannot be created by mixing any two together: red, yellow and blue. They form the base of any colour combination.

Combining the primary colours creates the secondary colours; typically green (yellow + blue), purple (blue + red), and orange (yellow + red).

Now that you have primary and secondary colours ready to go, it’s time for tertiary colours. They are created when a primary and secondary colour are mixed together.

But of course, there are more colours in the world than just primary, secondary and tertiary. This is thanks to the magic of black and white. You can create livelier, brighter, softer, deeper, warmer or cooler colours when black, white, and/or grey are mixed with the original. But please note: black and white are not colours!

Hue, Shade, Tint, and Saturation

The term ‘hue’ is just another way of saying ‘colour’. However, ‘shades’ refers to darker or lighter variations of hues. For instance, if you mix yellow and blue, you get a green hue. Add black to that green and you get a darker ‘shade’ of green. Just think of the shade a building or tree can cast in the sun. The more black, the darker the shade.
If shade focuses on hues that are darker, then tint refers to hues that are lighter; how much white is added. For example, mixing red and white together will give you a pale red/pink. This pink hue is a tint. That means hues can have both shades and tints.

Combining both white and black to a base colour is known as saturation. You will hear this term used a lot when it comes to digital design.

Adding and Subtracting Hue

There are two main types of colour:
    CMYK (stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black), and
    RGB (Red, Green, Blue)

CMYK is designed for print purposes. That’s why you would have seen this abbreviation on your printer’s ink cartridges before. CMYK is a subtractive colour model. This means that less colour is needed to get closer to white (think the white of the paper). The more colour you add, the closer to black you get (e.g. more layers of colour and you can’t see the white of the paper).

RGB on the other hand is designed for electronic display, and is a colour additive model. Because the model is based on light waves (the light your computer screen emits), the more colour you add the closer you get to white. RGB is created using scales from 0 to 255, e.g. black is shown as R=0, G=0, and B=0, and white is R=255, G=255, and B=255. 

Colour Schemes

Colours don’t just have to look good together; they have to WORK well together too.

Analogue Schemes

Analogous schemes are created when a dominant hue is paired with two to four colours directly next to it on the wheel. These schemes are stereotypically used to create a softer palette.

Monochromatic Schemes

Monochromatic schemes allows designers to create a palette based on an assortment of shades and tints of one hue. Of all the different kinds of schemes, monochromatic always look the most polished. They are also very easy to create – just pick a central hue and change the darkness and lightness of it along the wheel.

Triadic Schemes

Imagine a triangle sitting within the colour wheel. Where each of the three points of the triangle reside, they are the hues you will work with in a Triadic schemes. These schemes offer a high contrast of colours, so it is wise to select a dominant colour, and use the others sparingly throughout the design. This way an overpowering colour block is avoided.

Complementary Schemes

Complementary schemes work similarly to triadic schemes, however rather than three hues, only two are selected from opposite sides of the wheel. To build out the palette, varying shades and tints of the complementary colours are included also. Again, it is best to use one dominant colour, and the second for accents in the design.

Mix It Up!

Now you know all about colour and why it is an important aspect of design. Make sure to put these colour tips into practice when thinking about your brand, and any design projects you decide to undertake. Need a little more design inspiration? Download our FREE Creative Guide now for 16 pages of creative samples and tips to get you started