A little bit MORE on colour theory

A little bit MORE on colour theory


In doing the research for this post, I am again struck by how confusing colour theory is, so once again I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible for my own sake and yours.

So let’s start with the term hue. Basically this is a fancy word for what you and I would call a colour. Hues are the pure bright colours that we see on a colour wheel.

A shade is one of these pure colours with black added to it. So the words to the song ‘A whiter shade of pale’ are a bit misleading and should be ‘a darker shade of pale’.

A tint is any colour with white added and a tone is any colour with both black and white added (in other words grey!). So when people ask you to tone down your behaviour, they mean just that.


I think the main reason is so that you can sound a bit wise and you can participate in conversations about colour. One of the things that makes a beginning designer feel like a beginner is not having a good grasp of the terminology, so I think its a good idea to get used to using the correct terms for things. But mostly, learning the terminology is just the first step to exploring the wonderful world of colour and understanding how to select and use colour palettes in your design work.

When you see something that ‘just works’ this will usually be because the concept is clear, the language is easy to understand and the images support the concept, rather from detracting from it or confusing the issue. They are a lot of elements in making something beautiful and clear and one of these is colour.

Check out this website for some good info about colour http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/02/02/color-theory-for-designers-part-2-understanding-concepts-and-terminology/

A little bit of colour theory

In my last post I mentioned the importance of choosing the right colours for your presentation, so I thought I would explore this topic a little bit more today.

Recently one of my friends asked me to help her with a presentation she was giving to a group of nurses. We talked a bit about what she wanted to say, and what impression she wanted to give the audience and we had quite a bit of fun fooling around with different slide backgrounds and colour combinations. The original presentation was on a grey background with pink text and bullet points (yes it did include bullet points, more about that later). We finally decided on a cool grey/green colour scheme as we both thought it said ‘this is a serious topic’.

This led me to think about whether you really need to understand how colour works or do you just need to know what impression you want to give and then choose the colours to suit the topic, the audience, and the context in which the presentation is being delivered. In other words…


You can probably get away with the approach described above as long as you are not working with someone with weird taste who insists on using a colour scheme that is wildly inappropriate. In this situation, it might be really handy to be able to talk with some authority about what colours should be used when and where. But where do you start?


I find colour theory very confusing and that’s a terrible thing to admit given that my first real job was as a photographic colour printer. Having never studied art, it was only fairly recently that I got to understand how a colour wheel works, so I’ll try to explain it to you and maybe that will help me too!

There are basically only three colours –  red, blue and yellow and all the other colours are made from mixing these together in various combinations. When you mix the primary colours together you get secondary colours, and when you mix a primary with a secondary you get lots of colours. Confused yet?

I understand this, but I don’t think it really matters all that much, so don’t get too hung up on it. You really just need to get a colour wheel and stick it on your wall. What is really important to understand how to choose colours from the colour wheel. You have two choices – you can either choose colours that are opposite one another on the wheel (these are called complementary) or choose colours that are next to one another (these are called analogous). Complementary colours are like a happily married couple who are really different in every way, but complement one another really well. Think Ying and Yang, think yellow and purple. Analogous colours are like members of the same family. They tend to look similar, and can blend in well with one another. Think blue and aqua.

colour-wheel (Photo credit: Jasmic)

As a general rule is that you should use complementary colours for contrast and analogous colours for harmony.

I think that’s enough for now. Next week we’ll talk about tint, hue, shade and tone.

I strongly recommend that you check out this website for some more useful information and some lovely examples of websites that use different colours to create different impressions.