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Colour Theory

Colour is an interesting element of graphic design because it can be applied to any other element, changing it dramatically. It can be used to make an image stand out, to show linked text on a website, and to evoke emotion.


Graphic designers should combine their experience with color with an understanding of color theory.

Test your knowledge here.

Basic Color Terminology

An extremely important aspect of Graphic Design is color.  In the world of art, color is of monumental importance.  Believe it or not, some people make their entire careers around color.  There are actually professionals called ‘color specialists,’ that are hired to come in and consult around the concept of color for certain projects.   

Having said this, you will all be getting a pretty brief introduction to some basic terminology and concepts.  The purpose and the importance of this information is in the way that we speak about our work, as well as how to combine colors in a deliberate and concise manner.  For example, when you are speaking about your designs, you should be able to describe your color choices as ‘less saturated, or darker values,’ rather than just lighter or darker.   

In reference to combining colors, we should all be completely aware of how colors interact with each other, rather than what you just think ‘looks cool together.’  Below we have terminology paired with a graphic illustration.  These resources are instrumental in your coming projects, so you need to be very familiar with it.

Basic of the color wheel


Colour and hue are synonymous and can be used interchangeably. 


Red, yellow and blue are the primary colours. 


Green, orange and violet are the secondary colours.


Tertiary colours are a mixture of two secondary colours.


The lightness or darkness of a colour is called its value.   

Lightened values are tints, darkened values are shades and medium value colours are described as midtones. 

The perception of a colour is affected greatly by its value or saturation; in planning a colour combination, value and saturation are as important as the hue.  For example, in the red family, a darkened value of burgundy gives more power than a lighter value of rose pink.  A vividly saturated turquoise is more exciting than a pale grayed aqua. 


The intensity of a colour is described as saturation.  Saturation is determined by how little or how much gray a colour contains. 


In its purest form, a hue is at maximum saturation; these are colours that are not “grayed.”  They are described as:  clear, pure, brilliant, bright, rich, bold, vivid and/or true. 


The grayer or more neutral a colour is, the less its saturation.  Less saturated colours are described as soft, muted, subtle, toned-down, misty, dull or dusty.


The use of one colour family in various values or intensities is called a monochromatic colour scheme.  


Complementary colours means just that—they are total opposites on the colour wheel that enhance each other when used as a pair; they “complete” each other.  These colours are red & green, yellow & violet and blue & orange. 

The red family will appear even more red when contrasted with green, it will make it pop out, as will orange with blue or yellow with purple.  They balance each other as they are opposites, & one hue is always warm and the other will always be cool.


Analogous colours are neighboring families on the colour wheel. 


If the combination spans only one-fourht of the colour wheel, they are always harmonious as they share the same undertones, for example:  blue, blue-green and green.   

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