Design Basics: Color Theory

Color theory encompasses a large amount of concepts, definitions, and design applications. In this article we will focus our discussion on the color wheel and color harmony. Here are some terms and their definitions for your understanding. Hue is the color name (ie blue, orange, etc.). Tint, Tone and Shade are variations of the base hue with either white, gray, or black respectively. Color is one of the basic elements of design. See our article on the Elements of Design. Harmony is a principle of design that we talk about here.

The Color Wheel

Sir Isaac Newton developed the first iteration of what we call the color wheel in 1666. Many scientists and artists have studied and created variations based on his concept. Debates over format have also occurred. However, any color wheel (color circle) logically arranged of pure
hues has merit.

Primary in center, Secondary beside primary, tertiary outer circle

Primary Colors
The primary colors are Red, Yellow and Blue. These 3 hues cannot be formed by any color combination. Thus, they are the building blocks all other colors are derived from.

Secondary Colors
The secondary colors are Green, Orange, and Purple (Violet). These hues are achieved by mixing equal parts of each of the primary colors. Red & Blue make Purple, Red and Yellow make Orange and Blue and Yellow make Green.

Tertiary(third) Colors
Tertiary colors are combinations of the primary and secondary colors. They consist of: red-violet, red-orange, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-orange, and yellow-green.

Color Harmony

Harmony is one of the principles of design. We achieve harmony when the visual elements work in concert with one another. We will discuss Complementary, Split-Complementary, Analogous, and Monochromatic. A few others worth exploring but not included here: Triadic, Tetradic, and Square.

Complimentary color harmony


Complementary colors are the most basic of color harmonies. To create complimentary color harmony you simply choose two colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel. Examples of complementary color choices are: red-orange & blue-green, yellow & purple, and red-violet & yellow-green. The use of these harmonies create vibrant, high contrast color palettes and are most often used for their simplicity.


Split-Complementary color harmonies are a slightly more complex variation of complementary color harmony. Simply put, a split-complementary harmony is one key color with two colors which are adjacent to the key color’s complement. General ease of use with vibrant contrast makes this color harmony one regularly used.



Analogous color harmony consists of 3 hues that are next to one another on the color wheel. Examples would be: yellow, green-yellow, and green. The term analogous refers to simplicity or comparability to something else (analogy). Typically composed of a dominant hue, supporting hue, and accent hue or mixture of the dominant and supporting hues. Two things to note when using analogous color harmony: a 60-30-10 rule to maintain visual balance, secondly, stick to colors of one temperature scale either warm or cool for cohesion and harmony.



Monochromatic color harmonies are achieved by use of a single hue with varying tints, tones, and shades of that color family. Contrast is imperative to maintaining visual interest. Tints are white added to hue. Tones are the addition of gray to a hue. Shades are black added to a hue.


In conclusion, the effective use of color harmony can set a mood, make a statement and draw attention. One of the most powerful elements in your design is the harmony of the color palette and the emotion that it evokes. Happy designing!

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