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Colour theory and colour palettes for designers

By Academy Xi

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Far from just making things ‘look pretty’, Graphic Designers draw on some complex theories to increase the impact of their work. Read on to find out how you can make a splash with your designs using colour theory.

What is colour theory?

It was the English mathematician and bonafide brainbox Isaac Newton who first developed colour theory. Using a prism, Newton split white light into a spectrum of colours and then wrapped the spectrum around itself to create the colour wheel.  Colour theory has developed into a set of rules which helps designers use colour to convey messages and elicit emotional responses. Picking colours for a particular brief, designers refer to the colour wheel and knowledge about optics, psychology, behavioural science and much more. What is colour theory

Why should you care about colour theory? 

Artists and designers have been using Newton’s wheel to create eye-catching visuals for hundreds of years. In a business setting, colour is one of the most significant variables that can determine what we buy, from the foods we eat, to the clothes we wear and the cars we drive.

The best marketing uses colour to appeal to our senses, helping us to develop an emotional connection with a brand and ‘feel’ our way toward a purchase. As a result, applying colour theory is a crucial step in building a successful business.   

What is the colour wheel?

The colour wheel is a visual representation of primary, secondary and tertiary colours, with the various hues arranged according to wavelength. Graphic Designers use the colour wheel to understand what the visual effects are likely to be when different colours are combined. 

When using colours on the the colour wheel (referred to as ‘hues’), designers will consider:

  • Shade – This is when black is added to a colour, resulting in a darker, more intense hue. Shaded colours tend to be moody
  • Tint – This is when white is added to a colour, creating a desaturated and lighter hue. Tinted colours normally have a calming effect 
  • Tone – This is when both black and white are added to a colour, creating a less saturated hue 

The importance of colour harmony

Colour harmony refers to the process of combining particular colours to create an aesthetically pleasing experience. These combinations create contrasts that are said to be ‘harmonious’. 

Following the rules of colour harmony can bring a sense of internal order and balance to an image. On the other hand, ignoring colour harmony can lead to visuals that are either chaotic or bland, both of which the human brain will reject.   

Additive vs subtractive colour

There are two methods for producing colour – additive and subtractive. The additive colour model is primarily used when colours are added to shades of light to create colours. The subtractive mode is used when white light, such as sunlight, reflects off an object. Confused? Let’s break it down.

  • The additive colour model (RGB) 

Additive colours begin as black and become white as more red, blue, or green is added. TVs, mobile phones, computer monitors, and other electronic screens display colours that are created with the additive model. Pixels start as black, but take on colours that are expressed as percentage values of red, green, and blue (hence ‘RGB’). 

  • The subtractive colour model (CMYK)

Subtractive colours begin as white, but as you add filters to the white light, such as ink, this white light takes on the appearance of colour. Photos, magazines and other printed materials use subtractive colour. CMYK refers to the four colours added to plates during subtractive printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black).  

How to choose a colour scheme

How to choose a colour scheme

Selecting a colour scheme can make or break the popularity of a brand. To help you nail the process, here’s a simple four-step guide:

Step 1: Prioritise the user experience 

Colour can be used to establish a brand’s overall look and feel, influencing how users interact with your business and the emotions they experience as they do so. 

Ask yourself, what kind of experience are your users looking for? If you run a jewellery store and they’re after a luxurious experience, a deep purple colour scheme might work. If you run a spa and they’re after a peaceful, serene experience, a blue or green colour scheme might be more effective. 

Step 2: Set a mood for your colour scheme

It’s handy to think of your brand as having a personality so you can choose colours that will accentuate certain traits. These traits will set the mood for your brand. If you want to seem exciting and confident, a red colour scheme might be a good choice. If you want to seem calm and down-to-earth, a green colour scheme might do the trick. 

 Step 3: Refer to your colour wheel

Don’t just base your colour choices on a hunch. Refer back to the colour wheel and play around with different combinations until you have some options you’re happy with. Using colour theory to support your choices will allow you to be more intentional in creating a visual identity for your brand. 

Step 4: Draft multiple designs

This might seem like obvious advice, but don’t just settle on the first colour scheme you come up with. A Graphic Designer would produce multiple colour schemes, giving their client a series of options to pick from. Do the same for yourself.

What are the main types of colour palette?

When you’re picking your colour palette, it’s handy to know what some of the most tried-and-trusted options are: Pastel colour palette – Pastels are pale tones of colours made by mixing a significant amount of white into the original hue. Pastel colour palette Neutral colour palette – Neutral palettes often include beige, ivory, taupe, black, grey and shades of white. Though they seem to lack colour, neutral palettes often have undertones. Neutral colour palette Warm colour palette – Warm colour palettes are based on hues of red, orange and yellow. Warm colour palette Cool colour palette – Cool colour palettes are based on hues of blue, green and purple. Cool colour palette Monochromatic colour palette – Monochrome colours are all the varieties of a single hue, in different tints, shades and tones. Monochromatic colour palette Analogous colour palette – An analogous colour palette involves three hues, all of which are positioned next to each other on the colour wheel. Analogous colour palette Complementary colour palette – Complementary colours are positioned opposite one another on the colour wheel. These colours are said to be in direct harmony with each other. Complementary colour palette Triadic colour palette – A triadic colour palette focuses on one dominant colour, with the other two colours placed evenly apart on the colour wheel (marking a triangle) and serving as accents. Triadic colour palette

Best tools for choosing a colour palette and scheme

There’s plenty of innovative software designed to make picking your colour palette easy-as-pie, including:

Adobe Color

Adobe Colour theory Adobe Color is a browser-based application with an interface featuring a large colour wheel. Beside are multiple options that work in conjunction with the colour wheel. You use the wheel to choose a base colour and apply one of the options. Adobe Color then generates numerous colours that make up your palette.


Coolors is a colour palette generator Coolors is a colour palette generator. It can either suggest an entire palette randomly or based on your inputs, such as a logo or manually entered colours. Settings enable you to adjust colours by shade, hue, saturation etc. With over 3 million users worldwide, you can draw inspiration from other people’s palettes and keep tabs on trending colour themes.

How to become a Graphic Designer

Do you want to learn more about colour theory and all things Graphic Design? 

Whether you’re looking to upskill or launch a completely new career as a Graphic Designer, Academy Xi has the perfect course: 

  • Graphic Design – For upskillers looking to boost their career prospects with in-demand creative capabilities 
  • Graphic Design: Elevate (Self-Paced) – For upskillers looking to boost their career prospects with in-demand creative capabilities, whilst enjoying the flexibility of self-paced learning
  • Graphic Design: Transform – For career changers, looking to transform their profession with a course offering access to a Career Support Program that helps 97% of graduates land their dream role 

Not sure which is the best course for you? Chat to one of our course advisors and we’ll help you break into one of Australia’s most creative industries.