What is color theory? Why does it matter? How does it pertain to the marketing and identity of a product? These may be some of the questions running through your head when you hear the phrase color theory. Some may think that choosing brand colors is entirely based on aesthetics or preference. These are factors, but there is so much more to color than being visually pleasing. According to the Institute for Color Research, people make a decision about a product 90 seconds after viewing it. Interestingly, 62% to 90% of their decision is purely based on color alone. A study by University of Loyola, Maryland stated that color increases brand recognition by 80%. Colors can trigger an emotional response or even evoke feelings and sensations that cannot be communicated through words. Through this, we will take a deeper dive on color theory and see how it can be used to a designer’s advantage.

What is Color Theory?

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, “Color theory is the collection of rules and guidelines which designers use to communicate with users through appealing color schemes in visual interfaces. To pick the best colors every time, designers use a color wheel and refer to extensive collected knowledge about human optical ability, psychology, culture and more.” The color wheel is comprised of 3 components: Primary colors (Red, Yellow, & Blue), Secondary Colors (Green, Violet, & Orange), and Tertiary colors (Blue-green, blue-violet, red-orange, red-violet, yellow-orange, & yellow-green).

These are the most successful uses of the color wheel:

Monochromatic – Use one hue, create a palette from different shades and tints of it.

Analogous – Use three colors located beside one another, like violet, red-violet, and red.

Complementary – Use “opposite color” pairs, such as blue and orange.

Split-Complementary (or Compound Harmony) – Use colors from either side of your complementary color pair to soften contrast, like orange, blue-violet, and blue-green.

Triadic – Use three colors which are equally distant on the color, such as blue, red, and yellow.

Tetradic – Use four colors that are two sets of complementary pairs like orange, yellow, blue, violet and choosing one dominant color.

Square – Use four colors evenly spaced on the color wheel.


What colors are known to be the most affective?

The key component when it comes to color is evaluating the brand’s attributes and through color conveying what the brands wants to say without using words. These colors should be representational of the brand and their ideologies, and then reinforced through packaging and social media. This sets the brand up for a strong sense of recognition amongst its consumers. So, how does color communicate? There have been studies done that test which associations are linked to each color. So, in a sense, it is not so much which color is the most affective, but instead, what does your brand want to say, and which color is best known for communicating that.

Here are a few examples of color associations and the brands/companies that use them :

  • Red is viewed as a color that causes hunger and increases appetite. This can be seen within many fast-food chains’ branding colors, such as McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Chik-fil-a. Red also creates a sense of urgency, communicating a sense of high energy, or a call-to-action.
  • Blue is often associated with trust and security. It gives viewers a sense of calmness and tranquility. Insurance companies, like Allstate, Geico, and Progressive are often users of the color blue.
  • Green represents nature and provides a sense of tranquility. It has been known to stimulate a feeling of harmony in the brain. It is often used by brands to represent themselves as natural and organic. Green can be seen in brands like Whole Foods, Tropicana, and Seventh Generation.

These are just a few examples of how major companies and brands use color to speak for their brand without using words, communicating instant emotions, feelings, and sensations to the consumer that they may not even be aware of.

How should graphic designers apply this to their work?

Designers should hold color and color theory to the utmost importance because it communicates so much that the brand cannot say with words. The designer should begin by evaluating the brand attributes and seeing which colors are representational of these attributes. After choosing the most representational color (or colors), the designer needs to take two components into consideration when creating the branding:

Readability & ADA Compliance:

Color pairings must be easily readable, color combinations such as bright yellow text on a white background confuses the eyes of the viewer and does not communicate well. In order to be ADA-compliant, the contrast of colors must be to specific minimums and maximums when paired together. This ensures that they will be legible to all that view.


After breaking down the attributes of the brand through color and ensuring that the color combinations have enough contrast to be easily legible, the fun part of this process is being creative and combining all of this to create something aesthetically pleasing. This could be muting the colors and creating a monochromatic color palette or using a bold tetradic palette that stands out amongst the rest. Ultimately the creative choice is up to the designer and which method they think would represent the brand best.


Choosing colors to represent a brand is a powerful choice that ultimately plays a role in the consumer’s decision-making process. Colors have associations that have been studied and used throughout some of the most powerful brands. The most important step in this process is understanding the brand and what the brand would like to communicate to the consumer. Once this has been decided, the designer can make informed decisions on which colors communicate best for this brand. Color is often overlooked as being chosen based on whatever looks the most aesthetically pleasing, but in reality, it is one of the most important steps in the branding process. Applying the principles behind color theory can strengthen a brand’s identity, giving it more brand recognition and evoking subconscious associations within the consumer.