Understanding the Basics of Colour in Graphic Design

Understanding the Basics of Colour in Graphic Design

The world is awash with colour and it’s one of the most important elements of visual appeal due to its potency. The effect it can have on an individual is immense thanks to the various connotations associated with certain colours.

Sounds pretty powerful stuff, right?

And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that successfully integrating colour into your designs is crucial for a killer design. Colour, though, is a complex element and one that you need to have a great knowledge of in order for its awesomeness to seep into your designs.

Let’s take a closer look at what a graphic designer needs to know about colour.

Additive or Subtractive?

Working as a graphic designer means that you’re going to be asked to work on all types of projects. Some of these may be in print and some may be purely on screen, but both of these mediums require the use of different colour systems.

Working with the additive colour system is reserved purely for designs which emit light such as monitors, mobile devices or projectors. The basic colours of additive colour are the old favourites of red, green and blue which are the foundations of every single colour you’ll see on a screen.

The subtractive colour system is the standard for print as it refers to any medium which reflects light, so you see the front cover on that novel you’re currently reading? That’s subtractive colour. And the three primary colours of subtractive colour are cyan, magenta and yellow which reflect light of different wavelengths and are then translated by the human eye.

Use a Colour Wheel to Understand What Works

Understanding which colours work together is vital for your designs as you want colours which complement each other’s unique properties.

Get your colour combinations wrong and your design will jar people’s attention and make for a bad visual experience.

To help you achieve this we have the wonderfully simple creation known as a colour wheel. There are all types of colour wheels out there, but the basic tenets of a colour wheel are that they’re designed with the colours arranged in a complementary fashion.

Colours which are most complementary will be on opposite sides of the colour wheel, so you’re always onto a winning combination with these. Another interesting combination is known as triadic and involves picking three colours which are at 120 degrees from each other. Finally, colours next to each other are perfect for shading and highlighting complementary colours.

How Do You Get All Those Different Shades?!

We know a little bit about where colours come from now and how to compliment them, but where on earth do all these colour variants come from?! I mean, how do we go from red to blood red to fire engine red?!

Well, the secret behind these variants is simply down to manipulating a few colour properties to enhance the range of colours at your disposal.

The hue refers to the position of the colour on the colour wheel. For example, if you’re in between the red and violet sections of the colour wheel then you’ll have a reddy violet colour. The bias of this colour, of course, all depends on how close you are to each individual colour. And each degree brings a slightly different shade.

Brightness can have a huge impact on the colour you’re working with e.g. the colour blue with 0% brightness won’t look blue in the slightest, it will look black. However, raise the brightness to 50% and you’ll get a much bluer colour. To get the true blue colour you would have to raise brightness to 100%.

The final component which can radically alter the appearance of a colour is saturation. And this property allows you to control just how rich the colour being represented is. Desaturating the original colour down to 0% will give you’re a greyish shade whilst, like brightness, 100% will give you the colour in all its saturated glory.

These are the basic principles of colour theory and if you can embrace these philosophies you’ll understand colour much better. With this knowledge you can then feel more confident in picking the right colours for your designs and knowing how to get the best out of them for amazing designs.



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