2011-02-22

Applying colour schemes

Choosing a colour scheme is only the beginning. Even a good colour scheme needs to be applied well in order to successfully communicate a message while being aesthetically pleasing. While this post is primarily intended for design beginners, hopefully experts will find a memory jog useful. Please comment and share your best colour scheme tips for the benefit of others.

Usually every colour scheme gets white added by default. White is the neutral background colour of paper and web pages. Think of white as negative space. It is much easier to design with a white background than a black one.

Think which colours in the scheme should dominate and which should be highlight colours. This will depend on the feel (or brand) the design is trying to communicate. Dominant colours should be used liberally and highlight colours less so. If the colour area coverages are close to equal then a colour scheme will tend to look discordant (and thus visually noisy and therefore less aesthetically appealing) so go for variety in the amount of each colour used.

The dominant colours are usually chosen by grouping the scheme colours that are closest together on the colour wheel. The colours that are the fartherest away from others become the highlight colours. This gives an overall harmonious feel but has the excitement of a few highlight splashes for interest. For example, in a split-complementary scheme usually the split colours are dominant and the complementary colour becomes the highlight. Break this rule to interesting effect.

Each design also establishes semantic meanings for colours. Things that have the same meaning should be coloured the same, things that have different meanings can be coloured differently.

It is easiest to start with colour schemes of just three or four colours. (Two colour schemes are often too boring). In more complex schemes there will be certain colours that only work next to a couple of other colours in the scheme. Colours that are far apart in hue but close in saturation and brightness will visually vibrate because the dominance is not clear. For example, Christmas designs tend to avoid putting green next to red – an intermediary colour like white, silver or gold is used to separate them.

Learn to think in the HSV (Hue Saturation Value/Brightness) space when looking at colour schemes. The mathematical relationships between the colours are easier to understand in HSV mode. It is then easy to see how a successful scheme can be reinterpreted in a different hue simply by rotating all colours around the wheel. Or (my favourite example) by taking the heavy earthy traditional colours of deep blues, greens and maroons and reducing the saturations and increasing the brightnesses transforms the scheme into the pastels commonly for weddings. The key to comparing colour schemes can often be found in HSV.

What’s your favourite colour scheme tip?