Academy Xi Blog

How to use a colour wheel to choose colours

By Academy Xi

Colours can influence thinking, impact mood and guide decision making. It’s no surprise they play such a vital role in design. Read on to discover how the colour wheel is used for design work.


What is a colour wheel?

Sometimes referred to as a colour circle, the colour wheel is a visual organisation of colour hues that shows the chromatic relationship of colours to each other, with every hue placed in order of wavelength. 

How many colours are in the colour wheel?

Generally you will find that colour wheels include three primary colours, three secondary colours and then the six colours that are created when a primary and secondary colour is combined, which are called tertiary colours. This takes our colour wheel to a total of 12 colours. There are, however, other wheels that will include more combinations of primary and secondary mixing creating a total of 24 colours.

What is colour theory?

The foundation of guidelines for colour when used to create anything visual is known as colour theory. Knowing the rules enables you to create colour palettes that resonate effectively within the design work you are creating.

Primary colours, secondary colours and tertiary colours

Roll up your sleeves, get your art smocks on and cast your mind back to school art class…

Primary colours

The basis for all colour creation, primary colours cannot be created with a combination of any other colours. The three primary colours are:

  • red
  • yellow
  • blue

Primary colours provide a strong base for any design and are a jumping off point for exploration into other shades, tones and tints. It’s also possible to use other strong colours as the framework for your design – it doesn’t necessarily need to be a primary colour, but will often be the case.

Secondary colours

So let’s talk about secondary colours. They are created when any two of the primary colours are combined, as follows:

  • Yellow and blue = green
  • Blue and red = purple
  • Red and yellow = orange

Tertiary colours

When you combine a primary and secondary colour together, you will get what is called a tertiary colour. The thing is, you won’t get a great tertiary colour with every primary/secondary combination – some of the mixtures will be brown-ish (and hey, you might be after that colour, so go for it if that’s the case!). 

This is where your trusty colour wheel comes in handy, as tertiary colours can be created when you mix a primary colour with a secondary colour that sits beside it on the colour wheel. Six tertiary colours tick this box:

  • Yellow and green = yellow-green (chartreuse)
  • Yellow and orange = yellow-orange (amber)
  • Blue and green = blue-green (teal)
  • Blue and purple = blue-purple (violet)
  • Red and orange = red-orange (vermillion)
  • Red and purple = red-purple (magenta)

What are the seven colour schemes?

In the world of colour and design there are seven major colour schemes. Let’s take a look at each scheme:

#1 Monochromatic colour scheme

A single colour (mono) with all of its associated shades and tints is included in a monochromatic colour scheme, which creates a unified visual feel. The intensity of the colours, in terms of darkness or lightness, can be easily shifted and this approach provides a clean design, which is understated, simple and elegant.

Monochromatic colour scheme infographic

Feeling like just one colour might be limited for a design? Take a look at primary colour blue and all of the shades, tones and tints that are associated and you might change your mind.

Blue monochromatic colour scheme infographic

#2 Analogous colour scheme

Back to the trusty colour wheel and you’ll find that analogous colour schemes are created by partnering a main colour with the next two colours beside it. If you want to go for a five-colour scheme instead of only three colour, add on the two beside the outside colours. 

Analogous colour scheme

The analogous scheme delivers a softer, lower contrast and would be more likely found in image design where a bold contrast isn’t required. 

#3 Complementary colour scheme

Using two colours that sit directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, along with the associated tints of those colours, will give you a complementary colour scheme. This approach is to be used carefully as it will create a great amount of contrast. High contrast can be effective and impactful with charts and graphs, but might be overbearing if used throughout an entire design approach. Try to only use complementary colour schemes when highlighting key information – unless your design calls for high contrast of course!

#4 Split complementary colour scheme

Take a single colour on the wheel, look directly across to its complementary colour, then select the two colours either side of this complementary colour and you’ve got yourself a split complementary colour scheme. 

Split complementary colour scheme

With this scheme you can get great contrast with any two of the colours, but like complementary colour schemes, it can be very bold and too high contrast, so requires some consideration. 

#5 Triadic colour scheme

High contrast strikes again with the triadic colour scheme. Choose three colours that are equally distanced in lines around your colour wheel. You can select one of the colours to be the dominant one in your design, then perhaps soften the others with a softer tint. Using them all at full intensity could be overpowering. 

Triadic colour scheme

#6 Square colour scheme

Create a square (or diamond) on your colour wheel, and similarly to the triadic scheme, you will get a square scheme. Choosing one colour as the dominant is again advised and making the others background players will balance things out. Try each colour as the dominant to see which combination works for your design. 

#7 Rectangle colour scheme

Similar to the square scheme, the rectangle creates a slightly more subtle outcome. Two colours will be more bold, with the opposite side of the wheel providing more muted options.

Rectangle colour scheme

How to choose the right colour scheme

Always place the end-user at the centre of your design approach. What is the purpose of the design you are going to create? What action or feeling are you aiming for the user to take or experience? 

With these considerations in mind, approach your design while also being mindful of the user interaction. If bold and highly contrasting colours dominate and distract, they might not be able to easily engage with the interface (with online design, for example).

Create your design with multiple colour options and if possible, run some user testing to gain feedback on user experience. It could also be a good idea to look at other design work with a similar objective to see which colour schemes were used and how impactful or effective they are.

Keep your colour wheel handy!

How to get into Graphic Design

Academy Xi offers a range of courses that will equip you with all theory and practical skills needed to flourish in today’s design industries.

Want to combine business objectives and creativity to craft stunning visual assets that resolve a brand’s biggest challenges? 

Change careers with our Graphic Design: Transform course: 

  • Get to grips with the full suite of Adobe apps and build a stand-out portfolio. 
  • Join a Career Support Program that helps 97% of graduates land their dream role, with tailored job search, resume and interview advice. 

Upskill and develop in-demand skills with our Graphic Design: Elevate course: 

  • Learn the theory of Graphic Design and put it into practice with hands-on projects.  
  • Build a unique portfolio with a range of digital design assets.
  • Elevate courses come in two flexible options – part-time, or self-paced.

If you have any questions, our experienced team is here to discuss your training options. Speak to a course advisor and take the first steps in your Design journey.