Ahhh, the colorful world of graphic design; it’s made up of multiple components, color theory being one of the big ones. With a good grasp of graphic design basics color theory, you can up your design whether you’re the creator or another designer is working on your brand.

What is Color Theory?

Who doesn’t love color? Remember that box of new crayons, full of promise and creativity, the sharp points ready to create in a rainbow of choice? Even as adults, we still feel a reaction to color. That’s where color theory comes into play. Color theory is a critical component of any type of art. In short, it’s how colors work together and the message they convey. In more intricate terms:

Color theory is the collection of rules and guidelines which designers use to communicate with users through appealing color schemes in visual interfaces. To pick the best colors every time, designers use a color wheel and refer to extensive collected knowledge about human optical ability, psychology, culture and more.

It’s much more than just knowing what colors look nice together. Color theory not only involves aesthetics but it also involves communication. Graphic design basics color theory uses color in design. Wherever we look, there is color. For those of us fortunate to have great eyesight, color becomes a big part of the world. We see it in nature, in art, in the mundane, and the fantastical. We also see it in business branding and graphic design.

Some components of color theory:

Most people are a bit familiar with the color wheel and the primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. The color wheel is a circle representing the colors and their relationships to one another. A color wheel can be simple with just the primary and secondary colors (purple, green, and orange) or more intricate with a huge range of colors. Whichever way it is, it still shows the relationships of colors.

Besides the colors themselves, color theory uses hue (a specific color of shade like blue or dark purple) and saturation (intensity creating bold colors, dark, or pastel) to define and categorize colors. Some other terms worth knowing are things like:

  • monochromatic – one hue in different shades and tints
  • analogous – colors besides each other on the color wheel, this creates a color family
  • complementary – opposite colors, this maximizes contrast
  • tetradic – four colors composed of two complementary pairs, usually one color is the main one
  • square –  four colors evenly spaced on the color wheel, usually all colors are used equally

Choosing a color palette is more than just choosing pretty colors or your favorites. Not only do the colors need to look nice together, but they also need to convey a certain message. Graphic designers should always consider the message.

Graphic Design Basics Color Theory

So when it comes to graphic design basics, color theory is crucial to successful design. In graphic design basics color theory, designers employ an aesthetic range of colors while adhering to a brand message. When we think about graphic design, it’s important to understand a basic definition. From our own Bunny Studio library, we learn that graphic design is the use of visuals in communication. It entails the artistic expression of both concepts and ideas through the use of graphic elements and tools.

One of the things that any good graphic designer does is employ color theory. This ensures the design represents the brand and sends the message that the company wants. And yes, they can do this through color. We touched on different palettes, like monochromatic or analogous, but how do they relate to graphic design?

Let’s take a logo for example. If you use a monochromatic color scheme, your logo will convey a vibe on the serious or more calm side. A monochromatic palette of grays has that formal tone while a palette of shades of blue has a calming, natural feeling. But what if you want a fiery, hot logo? Here is where you can pull in an analogous palette of yellows and oranges – you know, the tones of flames. So it’s not only the colors you use, but how you display them.

graphic design basics color theory

Graphic Design Basics Color Theory and the Emotion of Color

Graphic designers should have an excellent concept of how color evokes emotion. If you are looking to enhance your knowledge of color theory in graphic design, check out this article with some great book recommendations, by the way. As graphic designers create material, they incorporate color to finalize the message. Different color evokes different emotion.

Try this… Picture your favorite logo. Ok, do you have it in mind? What do you feel when you think about it? Now, in your mind, change the color. Do you have the same feeling? You very well may not, because when we see certain colors, we feel different things. Let’s look at the main colors with the help of Fotor and see what they do for us.


Red evokes passion and strong emotion, on both sides of the spectrum, from love to hate. It also makes us think of power and energy. So maybe you want to use red to brand your new energy drink, but not your soothing herbal tea. Experts recommend using red in small doses, too, so it does not overwhelm or exhaust the senses.


Ahhh, blue. We often look at blue as it represents calmness and tranquility. The meaning and symbolism of blue are heavily reliant on the shade of blue. Light blues can be both refreshing and friendly while dark blues are considered stronger and reliable. So blue may work for that herbal tea. It also can work when you want to convey trust and reliability. Often with blue, it depends on the shade…the lighter it is, the more tranquil. A medium blue can be a bit bold while a darker blue gets that trust and loyalty.


This warm, energizing color makes us think of happiness and optimism. It’s clean and refreshing, like lemons and sunshine. Yellow can convey a modern look as you use a brighter hue or a more gentle one with muted yellow. If you do decide to go with yellows, make sure it’s strong enough to stand out and your image doesn’t get lost in yellow’s gentleness.

Purple, Green, and Orange

These secondary colors have just as much impact as the primaries. Purple can stand for royalty or riches, or if it’s light, it can show us calmness (like lavender fields) or a soft, romantic love. Green is a natural color and often seen in the branding of holistic or organic brands. As with most colors, the brighter you go, the more energy you provide. As for orange, when it’s bright, it is an energetic color. This is for adventure and vibrancy, but the darker and more muted it becomes, it brings connotations of coziness and warmth (think pumpkin spice).

You can have a lot of fun with color, but make sure you’re headed in the right direction with your message. As this article reminds us:

Color speaks volumes. Think about it – if you have a message to share and you present it in a gentle, analogous color scheme it’s going to present a different vibe than if you use bold, complementary colors. So whether you want a soothing feel or a bold, conceptual look, turn to color for your final details.

As you play with color, try some different shades, hues, and combinations. Something new may surprise you with how well it works, and you may not know it until you see it!

Using Color Theory in Your Graphic Design

Graphic artists are designers skilled in the art of color. Their goal is to incorporate color into a brand design to capture the target audience’s attention and send them your message. Whether you are looking to create a logo, great packaging, your business card, or a website, a graphic designer can spin some colorful magic. Just like that business card, color is often the first impression, and you know how important those are.

Color theory is one of the basics of graphic design. Your art can be stunning, but the wrong color will denote the wrong message. Think back to that herbal tea. You want a nice soothing effect, you want your audience to feel the pressures of the day floating away when they look at your graphic design. So think soft colors, gentle tones of greens or blues. Stay away from the bright, bold, highly saturated colors; they can go with your energy-producing teas.

Think of your audience, too…think what they’ll be drawn to. Interaction Design reminds us that:

The right contrast is vital to catching users’ attention in the first place. The vibrancy you choose for your design is likewise crucial to provoking desired emotional responses from users. How they react to color choices depends on factors such as gender, experience, age and culture.

Speaking of your audience and market, check to make sure your color choices work with your market – maybe what would work for one culture wouldn’t for another. Different colors have different associations around the world, so be sure to think globally as you work on your graphic designs.

Graphic Design Basics Color Theory

We really did stick with the basics here, but these are some need to know things about color theory and graphic design. The subject is deep and fascinating far beyond hue and saturation, so please continue to investigate. When it comes to graphic design, color is an integral part and can be that magic dust to make your designs work. If you would like to work with one of our expert graphic designers at Bunny Studio for any or all of your design needs, please let us know. It’s easy to get started! Our pros here are skilled in the world of color and would love to work on your project!