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Design Fundamentals: Color Theory

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Let’s look at the important elements to focus on when you’re designing a graphic. The key things to get right are:

  • Color
  • Imagery
  • Typography
  • Composition

Why use color?

First is color theory. Color is a critical element to get right in your designs. It’s used to attract attention, convey meaning, and of course for aesthetics.

We don’t usually even think about the colors we look at; we judge things quickly and often measure instantly whether something is desirable, professional, nice, ugly, or even weird based upon its color.

Color contrast

The most important thing to think about when using colors is the contrast between them. Contrast refers to how well one color stands out from another. You can use contrasting colors within an image to make text stand out from its background, for example.  Complementary colors, like yellow and purple, or blue and orange, for instance, provide maximum contrast with one another.

Contrast can also be used to guide people’s actions; to let people know what you want them to do. If you want to increase ‘click-through,’ make sure that there’s a strong contrast between the call-to-action button and the rest of the design.

Color wheel

You can check how colors contrast using a color wheel. A color wheel shows how colors are related visually. For example, complementary colors are those opposite one another on the color wheel.

Effects of poor color contrast

So what happens if we don’t have good contrast? Users will have a poor experience and can misunderstand meaning. Colors also give visual cues to meaning – for example, a green button usually indicates an affirmative action, like ‘OK’ or ‘Accept.’ But if you were to design a large ‘Accept’ button and make it red, it could really confuse the user, and in some cases, the results could be disastrous.

Common colors used by brands

Let’s talk about the most common colors used by brands, and what meaning or feeling they can invoke in their audience.

  • Red. The color red can trigger powerful emotions, both positive and negative, to create a sense of urgency – which is why it’s effective with sales. It also encourages appetite, so it’s used regularly in the fast-food sector.
  • Orange. Orange, a warm color, is considered light and fun, so it suits less ‘corporate’-feeling brands. Darker shades of orange are associated with autumn, which lends itself to more ‘earthy’ brands.
  • Green. Green is easy on the eye and synonymous with health. So you’ll often see it used by brands promoting health products, such as pharmaceuticals or food brands. It can also be linked to growth or power, such as with financial or military organizations.
  • Blue. Blue has a calming effect on the mind and is the color of reason, but also of strength, wisdom, and trust, which is why it’s used so widely. It’s a safe option for brands, but brands need to consider if it will help them stand out in their space.
  • Pink. Pink has historically been used to portray femininity, like with Barbie and Cosmopolitan Magazine. But nowadays, a lot of mainstream brands use it regardless of their audience, such as Lyft. It portrays youth, but also inspires comfort and represents hope. Pink has been used successfully in many industries to ‘break the mold.’
  • Black. The color black is synonymous with luxury and power. Combining it with a small amount of a bright color can add energy to sophistication. Black is well suited to some industries like fashion, for example – but perhaps not to others, like health.
  • White or silver. Using white or silver represents cleanliness and has often been used for a modern look and feel. It needs to be used carefully though, as it can lack personality. Many brands use white to complement another, more dominant color. When executed well, adding white to your design offers a modern, simplistic, and clean look.
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Philippe Polman

Philippe is a digital engagement specialist with extensive experience helping clients to create and manage deeper, more personal relationships with their target audiences. In previous roles, Philippe has designed and executed international communications programs focused on internal communications, UX, brand management, media engagement (traditional and digital), investor relations, and corporate positioning. More recently, he has founded his own aviation consultancy business, which combines both his passion and experience for the aerospace industry.

By the end of this topic, you should be able to:

  • Understand the principles and best practices underpinning graphic design 
  • Appraise the design of consistent, brand-approved graphics that supports a business goal

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Graphic Design Essentials for Marketers
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Skills Expert

In this short course, created by Digital Marketing Institute in partnership with HubSpot Academy, you'll learn about the fundamentals of graphic design: color theory, imagery, typography, and composition. You'll walk through each of these fundamental elements and their best practices, including tips on incorporating them into developing simple visuals for your business. You'll be able to apply the knowledge you learn in this lesson to graphic design projects, big and small. We include links and references to free resources to help you design graphics without a massive budget or a degree in graphic design.