Color theory is one of the first things graphic designers get taught about. It deconstructs the subject of color, turning it into simple rules that can be easily applied in your work. It teaches you about the color wheel, primary/secondary/tertiary colors, color temperature, color harmonies, and the psychology of color.
However, because this fundamental color theory is so fundamental, it simplifies certain issues and skips over some nuances. After all, these are basic rules that are only supposed to give you a general overview of the concept of color, all in one. But if you want to be a real professional, you need to look deeper.
In this article, we’ll go over five myths of color theory, trying to see what the original theory has skipped over for the sake of simplicity.
1. Color Temperature Myth
The most basic concept in color theory refers to the fact that hues can generally be separated into two groups: cool hues and warm hues. This separation is useful, because color schemes based on hues from just one group tend to look neat and consistent. This concept is based on something that photographers call white balance.
The colors we see in our environment are made by light. The color of this light therefore affects every hue in the scene, changing all the hues in a consistent way. When the tint of the light’s color is consistent, our eyes can cancel it out, so that we can recognize white as white, even if it looks yellow or blue.
When white in the picture looks yellow, all the other colors get yellowish, too—we call them warm. When white looks blue, the other colors get bluish—and we call them cool. Cool and warm colors have different meanings in color psychology, but the most important lesson to take from it is that warm hues look good among other warm hues, and cool among cool ones—but when mixed, they stand out like a sore thumb.
But how to recognize warm and cool hues? Fundamental color theory gives us an easy solution: the color temperature wheel. It’s divided neatly in half, separating the colors into warm and cool hues.
While there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this picture, it oversimplifies the subject of color temperature. It leads to a misunderstanding that certain hues are warm and cool on their own, as if temperature were a property of a color. Green is called cool, and red is called warm, just like that. The general rule is: the more bluish the color, the cooler it is, and the more yellowish the color, the warmer it is.
The problem is, the temperature of a color doesn’t exist on its own. You can’t just pick one color out of the color wheel and say if it’s warm or cool. Let me show you! Think for a moment—what temperature does this color have?
If you used the color temperature wheel as your reference, you called it cool. Now, let’s give it a friend:
Does this color still look cool to you? You probably noticed that it looks noticeably warmer. So is it warm now? Let’s make things even more confusing by adding one more color to the scene:
So what is this color now: warm, cool, or neutral? The truth is: either, and neither. Colors don’t have any temperature on their own. The temperature is perceived while comparing them—it’s not about how bluish a color is, but how bluish it is in comparison to the others in the scene. You can literally pick blue and make it look warm by accentuating its relationship to reddish hues.
So a more accurate color temperature wheel would look like this:
And you still shouldn’t look at this wheel to pick warm and cool hues, but rather to find the relationship between them, e.g. green is warmer than blue, but cooler than yellow. After all, all it takes to change the temperature of a color is to give it a yellowish or bluish tint—and this can be done with any colors, which makes the classic color temperature wheel useless.
So instead of limiting yourself to one half of the color wheel, always make sure that all the colors in the scene have the same tint—either bluish or yellowish. This is enough to create the appealing consistency of an intentional white balance.
2. Color Is Relative
The color wheel shows you all the hues together. It looks like a perfect tool for a graphic designer, an ultimate palette of color swatches. And, above all, it’s simply pleasant to look at—like a perfect, vibrant rainbow!
So what could be wrong with something that amazing? In short, it’s artificial. Colors look different when they’re a part of a rainbow, and different when they’re a part of a more down-to-earth scene—even if they’re exactly the same colors. Your brain can get exactly the same information from the light hitting the objects, but its interpretation doesn’t have to be identical.
I hinted at this issue in the previous section when I talked about color balance. We see the world in various light conditions during the day and night, yet it doesn’t change that much to us. That’s because our brain makes sure to cancel out the effects of the changes, making us see something constant. When you walk the street at night, the rooms behind the windows may look yellow or orange. Yet when you go inside, the orange tint is nowhere to be found.
It’s not really a bug, it’s a feature—our brain simply helps us recognize objects by showing them as the same regardless of how they currently look. A red apple will look red, whether it’s illuminated directly by the sun, hidden in shadow, or flooded with the soft, grey light of an overcast day. As long as the whole environment is affected the same way by the light changes, our brain knows how to “subtract” this effect.
Just look at this photo again. You see all these objects as white, even though they aren’t. If you check these colors, you’ll see that they’re various shades of greys, warm and cool. But you can say: “Sure, they’re not really white, but they’re close enough”.
Let’s take them out of the scene for a moment. Do these look almost white to you?
What happened here? Your brain interprets the scene as a whole. It doesn’t recognize the colors as Photoshop’s Color Picker would. It doesn’t care about objective hue or brightness; it cares only what the colors mean. And that meaning is presented to you in the form of visual information that doesn’t have much to do with the objective color properties of an object. It’s more useful to see the bookstand as white—as it would be in perfect light conditions—rather than to perceive its shadowed sides as colored differently for some reason.
This is probably the reason for the confusion about the Dress—a famous photo that made people question their own vision. How is it possible that the same colors can be seen as blue and black, or white and gold? The photo wasn’t lit properly, making it very confusing for our brain to interpret the colors. Some people’s brains removed the assumed overexposure, interpreting the colors as washed-out blue and black. Other people’s brains removed the assumed shadow, interpreting the colors as darkened white and gold. But there wasn’t enough information in the photo to decide which option was right!
This feature of our brain makes working with color tricky. A color picked directly from the color wheel may magically change once you place it in a scene. Sure, it doesn’t really change—it just seems to change. But when it comes to colors, what matters more—what they are, or what they look like?
Let’s go back to the color wheel. You probably see two different shades of purple here: darker on the left and brighter on the right, something like the squares below. But the truth is, they’re the same color,
So, what does
#8000FF look like on its own? The truth is, it doesn’t! Colors are created by relationships. Even the most “neutral” color wheel shows you the hues in relation to the white background and each other. And once you take one color out of this relationship to another, that new relationship will create a new color out of it.
The color wheel is, therefore, just a very basic starting point. You shouldn’t decide which color to pick based on how it looks on the color wheel. Bright red can look very aggressive in the company of a whole rainbow, but it can be turned into a quite subdued tone when there are no blues and greens around. Similarly, purple may look dark and dim on the wheel, but it can shine brilliantly in the right company.
If you’re interested in other optical illusions and how you can use them in your work, you may like this article, too:
3. Value Is More Important Than Hue
The color wheel can be used in color theory to show the relationships between colors and to give you some ready-made solutions for a neat composition. Fundamental color theory teaches you about various color schemes, like monochromatic:
… split complementary:
… or triad:
The concept is that our eyes can recognize the relationships between the colors, and if the relationships are organized, the scheme looks consistent to us. The problem is that this method only speaks about hues, and color is so much more than a hue. For example, these three are the same hue, but you can see what different colors they are.
But it’s not a surprise to you, is it? As a graphic designer, you’ve probably learned about saturation and brightness, too. Fundamental color theory speaks of tints (colors with lowered saturation) and shades (colors with lowered brightness). This comes directly from traditional painting, where saturation is lowered by adding white, and brightness is lowered by adding black.
What you might have missed when learning the fundamentals is the concept of value. It’s often either ignored or equated with brightness. That’s because it can’t be modified with any slider in Photoshop. Value is something that all hues have set by default, and it can only be modified by changing their saturation and brightness.
So what is value? It’s relative brightness. It’s not brightness that a color simply has, like brightness/lightness that can be measured with the Color Picker. It’s how bright a color appears to be in comparison to the others. And because our eyes are not equally sensitive to every hue, we see some hues as darker and some as brighter—even though in their pure form they’re all 100% bright. Their value can easily be seen when you desaturate the color wheel:
The answer to this curious phenomenon is pretty simple, if you know how colors are created. White light is made out of three primary hues: red, green, and blue (RGB). White is the brightest color that can ever be—its relative brightness (value) is 100%. But if it’s 100% bright, that means that its components must be less than 100% bright. And that’s exactly what happens: red is 30% bright, green is 59% bright, and blue is 11% bright.
Because value is based on our perception rather than the position of colors on the color wheel, the color wheel doesn’t help us with values at all. The hues stop being regular; at one place the value grows, then it decreases, and then it increases for a moment and drops again—no order at all. And that’s all because the primary colors (the components of all other colors) are not equal in terms of value.
You’d have to reorganize the hues to create a proper order of values, but it’s impossible to create a wheel out of them because there’s a beginning (dark) and an end (bright).
Let’s go back to the harmonious color schemes. They seem to give you some nice, well-tested solutions, but if you try to apply them to your design, you may notice that all these schemes, in their pure form, are vibrant and unpleasant. They’re either too contrasting or too similar.
“But you’re not supposed to use them like this!” a color theory teacher may say. “You still need to adjust the tints and shades.” And, indeed, after some tinkering, these contrasting triad schemes start looking quite appealing:
But so do all other color schemes, even made with completely random hues! What’s the difference between a triad scheme and a random scheme? Sure, you can tell that the former is based on a certain relationship on the color wheel. But… so what? What do we really gain by this, except proving our knowledge of classic color theory?
As you can see, correct tints and shades are more important for creating a consistent scheme than hues. And tints and shades without hue are… values. A scheme with nicely balanced values will look good regardless of the hues you use. And, conversely, well-planned hues will never look good if you use the incorrect values.
When starting a design, you should focus on values first. Hue doesn’t really matter as much as color harmonies would make you think!
You can learn more about values here:
4. Universal Color Psychology Doesn’t Exist
In graphic design, colors aren’t simply supposed to look pretty. They have a function—they are supposed to create a desired reaction in the viewer, giving them some information right away. A lawyer’s business card should evoke different emotions than a flyer for a New Year’s party, and colors play a very important role here.
Fundamental color theory, as usual, tries to bring some ready-made solutions for the psychology of color. Red is active and exciting, yellow is about happiness, pink brings femininity to mind, and black is serious and formal. There are whole long lists of what certain colors mean, where to use them, and where to avoid them. But even without them, we have some intuition of what works and what doesn’t.
But where does this intuition come from? Why do certain colors mean something? There’s not really enough research in this area, but evidence suggests that the meaning of colors is mostly based on culture. In other words, the colors are associated with what they’re usually used for, and they’re used for… what they’re usually associated with. It’s the chicken and egg problem—we make the culture, and the culture makes us. There was probably some basic, primal meaning of colors that all cultures started with, but it has evolved in many different ways in different parts of the world.
This means that your intuition about the meaning of colors is based on what you can already see around you, and that has only been confirmed by color theory as a certain rule to follow. Is blue used in business cards and in the logos of banks and other respectable institutions because it brings confidence and professionalism to mind, or vice versa? It’s hard to tell, but one thing is for sure: no matter why, it still works.
But here’s the problem: the culture of the West is not the default, nor is it global. It may seem like this when you don’t really leave the Western cultural circle, whether really or virtually, but there are great numbers of people spending their lives inside very different cultures—and their intuitions about colors may be vastly different, too.
For example, yellow is the color of joy and warmth in the West, but in Latin America it’s often associated with death and mourning. In China, red is a very positive color, full of happiness and energy, yet in the Middle East and some African countries, people see this color as a symbol of danger or evil. In the West, white is traditionally associated with weddings, but in many Asian countries it’s actually the symbol of death—treated like Westerners traditionally treat black.
Colors are like a language, but it’s not a universal language. Just as the same word may mean different things in different languages, the same color may be interpreted differently across cultures. Sticking to one official guide may help you appeal to one culture, but also alienate others. There is no single correct interpretation of colors, and we shouldn’t assume that ours is the default one.
5. Breaking the Rules Pays Off More Than Obeying Them
Color theory is full of rules that show you the way and make everything simpler. Designing a logo for a fast-food restaurant? Use yellow and red! Creating a package for a product meant for women? Use pink or pastel colors! Do you want your work to be treated seriously? Use dark blue! And God forbid you use soft colors in a product designed for men!
As mentioned in the previous section, these rules are used because they work, and they work because they are used. But because they’re used so widely, they start to seem boring, neutral, normal. And boring is usually the last thing on your list of goals when designing something! So maybe breaking the rules should be the way to go?
The rules change with time. A great example of it is how blue used to be the color for girls, while pink was for boys. Later, the trend was reversed, and today it’s impossible to mistake a girls’ toys aisle for a boys’ one. But people are getting tired of it. Increasingly, parents are trying to make sure to not enforce any gender stereotypes on their children, letting them develop their personality with as little pressure as possible. Gender-neutral toys and clothes are therefore sought after, and designing a green or a yellow product can be a very easy way to make it stand out from the sea of pink and blue.
Western culture has been putting emphasis on individuality for a while, turning away from stiff traditions that often meant limiting yourself for the sake of keeping things as they always were. Society is becoming more aware of its own needs and of how companies try to manipulate them. We don’t like being treated like idiots—and basing a design on stereotypes certainly feels like it. As designers, we have the power to shape the perception of gender and societal roles—by perpetuating the stereotypes, or by avoiding them.
We, as people, have been becoming more aware of how our actions influence the environment. Ecology, minimalism, and a natural way of life are trendy now. Flashy, colorful plastic is replaced with more natural materials, and less starts to mean more. The world seems to have had enough of bright, garish colors. So we are faced with a choice—to follow the tested rules just because they’re the rules, or to dare to create something new. And looking at the blue McDonalds sign, elegant, quiet, and fitting its environment, it’s hard not to question the validity of the yellow-and-red rule.
It pays off to follow the trends, but it pays off even more to set new
ones. And to create new trends, you need to steer away from the old ones,
ignoring the age-old rules in the goal of creating something fresh. After all, nobody can tell if these rules are used because they work best, or if they seem to work best because they are constantly used!
Being a graphic designer means being creative. While fundamental color theory is a very useful tool for beginners, in most cases it’s more limiting than helpful. There is no theory that encompasses all the rules of design, so color theory certainly can’t be one. It should be treated more like a suggestion, like a starting point—but if you want to be creative, you need to learn how to break the rules.
If you’re interested in color theory, you may also like these posts:
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