Color Wheels and Contrast: A Quick Color Theory Refresher

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“Color is slipperier than you think. It’s everywhere yet invisible; aloof yet strangely penetrating of all experience; more contingent on its surroundings than you may’ve ever supposed.” – Jude Stewart

Designers love playing with color, whether it’s for a project or pleasure. However, when it comes to selecting the right colors for a project, the intensity shifts from delightful engrossment to the anxiety of impending deadlines for a critical color decision.

Every designer needs to know color theory. It’s not just a subject you learn in design school; it’s an ever evolving study that needs frequent attention. With a strong foothold in color theory, designers can provide clients with high-quality designs that deliver an accurate meaning to the client’s targeted audience.

HOW Design University offers a course on color theory created by Jude Stewart that provides expert guidance for both the novice designer and the professional. Get a refresher on the subject by reading the Color Theory in Graphic Design course excerpt below.

What Graphic Designers Need to Know about Color Theory:

Allow me to tantalize you on the subject with a few early color wheels. The first happens to work perfectly with my color-and-butterflies metaphor. This is Moses Harris’ 1766 model from the Natural Systems of Colors. This fine specimen was the British entomologist’s attempt to explain the color-interplay he saw in his own favorite kind of bugs, flies.

color theory

I’m sure everyone in this course is at least glancingly familiar with the Pantone Matching System, and how their numbered color systems help ensure color consistency for products, even if they’re produced by multiple teams scattered all around the globe. You may be less familiar with some of the more obscure modern color systems, like the CIELAB and CIECAM02 color models for science and industry.

Are white and black actually colors? You can feel fully confident in answering YES. White light combines all colors in the spectrum; a white page or canvas is simply reflecting all colors back to your eye, absorbing none. (Although technically that’s not true; a perfectly reflective white doesn’t exist.)

Image provided by Shutterstock

Image provided by Shutterstock

By contrast, black represents the absence of light and color. White’s obverse, a black page absorbs most colors and reflects relatively few light particles back. I’m a sucker for the invention of “super-blacks”, ultra-absorbent nanocarbon materials that reflect increasingly smaller amounts of light.

A lot of color questions boil down to very democratic anxieties, like: Why did that beautiful apple-green paint in my kitchen dry to a nasty booger shade? Those questions are worth considering too.

Color is infinitely shifty; it changes as conditions do. Color is subject to a thousand kinds of distortion as it travels from an object, through light, through your eye to your (acculturated) brain.

So many brilliant minds have applied their little gray cells to illuminating the trickeries of color, but chief among color’s exhaustive observers was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Slightly dotty in its science but much-loved by generations of art historians and philosophers, in his 1810 classic “Theory of Colours,” Goethe rebutted Newton’s color-spectrum theory by imagining darkness not just as absence of light but as its own active force. As light struck dark, in Goethe’s view, their battle threw off observable sparks of color.

Weekdays, Goethe spent inventing the Italian tour, discovering the human intermaxillary bone, and giving voice to Sturm und Drang and Weltliteratur. Weekends, Goethe spent breathing on glass panes, prodding chocolate-froth bubbles, and flapping his arms in broad daylight, then jotting down how colors changed in each observation. The resulting catalog is an impressive confluence of exhaustive scientific inquiry and pointillistic word-art.

Back to your unfortunate, booger-colored kitchen: that’s most likely the fault of changing light throughout the day in your room. Yellow-rich lights, in particular, can play havoc on our perception of greens.

When we say “your tie really clashes with that shirt”, what exactly do we mean in color-theory terms? We’re talking about a violation in the laws of color contrast. Two Bauhaus-era giants tackled the question of color interactions: Josef Albers and Johannes Itten. “Color deceives continually,” wrote Albers in his 1963 book Interaction of Color, “so optical illusions deceive. They lead us to ‘see’ and ‘read’ other colors than those with which we are confronted physically.” Albers used nesting squares of color to illustrate various ways that proximity alone influences how we “read” colors. His intellectual pose was cool, scientifically detached, Teutonic. (Enraged at his unflappably bloodless stance, a lecture attendee once threatened to stand on her head as he spoke in protest. Albers replied: “Stop the sentence. You are self-disclosing; you are not self-expressing.’”)

Meanwhile, Itten’s self-defined mission was similar but cast in different terms: less concerned with quantifying deception, more on capturing the subjective. “The doctrine to be developed here,” he wrote in his 1961 classic Elements of Color, “is an aesthetic color theory originating in the experience and intuition of a painter.” Also shuffling many nesting squares, Itten staked out his territory in terms of 7 fundamental contrasts, but also ventured into dottier, spirituo-aesthetic landscapes. (“Forms and Color”, for example, assigns colors to geometric shapes – like the triangle, whose “acute angles produce an effect of pugnacity and aggression”, yet as the “symbol of thought…its weightless character is matched with lucid yellow.”)

The reason your tie clashes with your shirt probably stems from the two contrasting colors cranked to the same intensity – “contrasting” here meaning color-pairs across the color wheel, like orange and blue or yellow and purple. (Note that one is a composite of two primaries, while the other is a primary.)

flower field

Image provided by Shutterstock

Put two contrasting colors,
cranked to the same intensity, next to each other, and it can seem like they’re vibrating angrily, or suffused in an aura or halo. Albers explained the effect as an after-image from one color blurring the boundary line, giving it a jumpy feel. (That’s if you’re not actually just color-blind – more on that in Day 5.)

What’s most important for designers to understand about color theory is simple. It gives us ways to categorize and communicate about an otherwise elusive visual phenomenon.

Understanding color’s interactions with each is deep and all-absorbing, but only a few basics are necessary to plunge deeply into this play with intelligence.


Color Theory in Graphic Design course. Or check out the book, “Ultimate Guide to Color.” Grow in your understanding of how color works, and how you can make it work for your design work. With comprehensive information on color design and over 300 color images, discover a wide range of examples, techniques, inspiration, and solutions to fit your need – whatever your discipline.