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Back to Basics: Design and Color

Dori Levine October 26, 2016 Branding & Design, Creativity, Resources, Web Design & Development

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Color and typography have long been considered the two most important elements in good design.

In fact, we’ve talked about the importance of both of these elements before; we’ve shown you the correlation between neuroscience and design, and given you a solid primer on the anatomy of typography. Here, we’ll talk about three important elements that will help build a foundational understanding of how color coincides with good design.

The Color Wheel

Odds are, you’ve seen a color wheel before. Most elementary art classes teach young students about the basics of the wheel, but to really understand its importance in design you need to understand its components:


Primary Colors

Primary colors are the building blocks for all other colors. These are colors that cannot be created through the mixing of other colors. They are colors in their own right.

Secondary Colors

When you combine any two of the primary colors, you get three new mixtures called secondary colors.

Tertiary Colors

When you mix a Primary and its nearest secondary on the color wheel you create six new mixtures called tertiary colors.


As in life, harmony consists of a well-balanced arrangement of the parts. To establish some relationships between colors in color theory we distinguish two categories:

Warm Colors

Colors from red to yellow, including brown, orange, and pink. These colors evoke warmth because they remind us of things like the sun or fire. These tend to advance in space.

Cool Colors

Color from green to blue, but also including some shades of violet. Cool colors are better for backgrounds – they will give the impression of calm and reduce tension.

Neutral Colors

White, black and gray are considered to be neutral.


You’re not limited by your first glance at a color wheel. As evidenced above with elements like temperature and saturation, your basic red-yellow-blue have a seemingly endless variations, both subtle and drastic. So let’s talk about undertones – undertones give you the ability to, for instance, target the psychology of the color red without making your logo, site, or collateral reminiscent of a fire engine.


Color Psychology

Much like the signs of the zodiac, every color has specific associated psychological traits, emotions, and energies. Odds are, you can figure out what a color’s traits are just by looking at it – in fact, that’s the whole point. Each color has both positive and negative associations, and that’s why color selection is an important part of the branding process. A therapist, for example, might want to choose a calming, tranquil color:

muted colors 2

While an entertainment company might want to focus on something more energetic and dynamic:

vibrant colors 3

These are our top three recommendations for building a basic understanding around the importance of color.

Useful Color Theory Terms

Color value – measures lightness or darkness of a color

Saturation/intensity – the brightness or dullness of a color

Chroma – how pure a hue is in relation to gray

Shade – a hue produced by the addition of black

Tint – a hue produced by the addition of white.



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