Theory, but make it Colorful.

Read Time: 5 Minutes

Let’s talk about colors. How many colors do you see on a daily basis? How many colors do you think there are? You may not notice, but colors have a major impact on how you interact with the world, what things you are drawn to, and how you react to certain things. The science behind this is color psychology; different from the color theory used in art and design. Both affect how good designers employ color to encourage users to follow certain behavior patterns, react emotionally, and even make certain choices.

In this blog, we will define both color theory and psychology and provide insight into how designers use them to effectively communicate in design.

Theory vs. Psychology

Color theory is a logical structuring of colors; think ‘the color wheel’. Color psychology is how human emotions and behaviors are influenced by colors.

Most people are familiar with the color wheel that Sir Isaac Newton developed in 1666. The basic theory of the wheel is to break color into three groups: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary. 

First, the primary colors are arranged in a circle. Secondary colors are derived from the primary colors that are next to each other and placed in between them on the wheel. This process is repeated with these six colors to create the tertiary colors and voila – you have Newton’s color wheel. 

One way to develop color schemes based on Color Theory is by using one of the following rules based on the color wheel:

  • Analogous: three colors located next to each other on the wheel, and an easy and quick way to select a harmonious color palette.
  • Complementary: two colors that oppose each other on the color wheel, good for when you want to create high contrast in your design.
  • Split-complementary: a combination of the analogous and complementary schemes where you start with one color and then pick two others that are analogous to its complement.
  • Triadic: three colors that are at equal distances from each other on the wheel, which tend to make the palette feel well rounded and balanced.
  • Tetradic: two sets of complementary pairs. This can be tricky but if you choose properly, you can create a beautifully balanced palette.

The last scheme usually discussed is Monochromatic. Not necessarily based on the color wheel itself, it involves picking a specific color on the wheel and adding amounts of white or black to create different shades of the same color. It’s a hard palette to mess up and is generally appealing to a wide audience.


Color psychology, on the other hand, informs which colors a designer chooses, based on how they want the audience to feel or react. Research shows that it can take as little as 90 seconds for a customer to decide how they feel about a brand and 60%-90% of that judgment is based on color alone. Meaning the human mind reacts to colors subconsciously, without registering that they have done it.

For this reason, it’s important for designers to also consider color psychology when selecting a color palette.

  • Blue is the color of trust. It evokes emotions of peace, tranquility, and loyalty. Like water, it generally represents calm, and it is noted to be the most common favorite color, according to many comprehensive studies. Its negative side can also be associated with sadness, loneliness, and despair.
  • Green is the color that represents nature. Because of this, it tends to bring feelings of balance and harmony, being a cool color it is more representative of peace. It is also a sign of growth, both in nature and money, so it is often associated with materialism, greed, and envy. 
  • Yellow is the color of happiness. It radiates joy and warmth and is associated with sunlight. It can make a user feel inspired and confident but needs to be limited as well. Too much yellow can turn happiness on its head and feel cautionary, inducing anxiety.
  • Orange is a bright, exciting color. It pulls a friendly response from its yellow side and can bring feelings of enthusiasm and motivation from the red side. It is generally associated with the spirit of creativity and adventure.
  • Red can represent both positive and negative feelings, but is generally associated with strong feelings like love, confidence, passion, and anger. It is an effective attention grabber but should be used in limited quantities due to its potential to elicit a negative response.
  • Purple represents royalty. It is a confident, luxurious color. It is also generally the color associated with mystery and magic. Being a mix of red and blue, it is a combination of both power and stability.
  • Pink is representative of sensitivity and romance. It’s softer than red, so where red evokes passion and lust, pink is the color of real love, youth, femininity, and hope. For these reasons, it is more effective in targeting girls and young women.
  • Brown is an earthy color. It is secure and grounded and is therefore usually used in shades as a background color. It can bring feelings of warmth and comfort, and make a design feel experienced and reassuring.
  • White and Black are not actually colors at all. Instead, they are all colors at once or no color at all. Black is traditionally associated with death, evil, and tragedy where white is associated with life, purity, and innocence. Too much white can evoke a feeling of isolation and emptiness, and black can add severity and seriousness to a design.

It is important for designers to consider both theory and psychology when selecting a color scheme because each color combines with other colors differently, and has an effect on the viewer’s unconscious opinion of a design. It’s critical that a design conveys the right message. If a designer can select the right colors for their target audience, they can jump a significant hurdle in associating positive feelings with a brand. From there, the brand is primed to turn the audience into new customers.