A solid understanding of colour theory is a fundamental part of the design.
At the core is the colour wheel, which provides a framework for all types of designs in terms of colour palettes. The wheel is one of the most important tools in a graphic designer’s toolkit. It’s used in conjunction with various techniques that build on the three primary colours—red, blue, and yellow—to create a huge variety of hues.
Combining different colours and adjusting their brightness and tones is what artists are best at. It’s also important to understand the vocab that relates to how you can create totally different combinations.
The vocab isn’t complex. Shades and tints, for example, refer to adding either black or white to colour, respectively. Tone and saturation refer to the strength and brightness of colours. The three primary colours are combined into secondary hues, which you can combine again to create tertiary colours.
Colour combinations fall into one of seven categories:
- Monochromatic: one base hue and varying the shades and tints
- Analogous: three to five colours beside each other on the colour wheel
- Complementary: colours opposite each other on the colour wheel
- Split complementary: one base colour alongside two others that lie on either side of the complementary colour (opposite the base colour)
- Triadic: colours equally spaced around the colour wheel
- Double-complementary/tetradic: two colours with their complementary hues
- Custom: colour schemes that don’t follow any of these rules
If you’re looking for colour inspiration for your next design project, these 20 combinations are sure to make a statement.
Green and pale pink: fern or emerald green alongside pale pink creates strong contrast with a slightly muted feel. Green usually evokes feelings of calm and growth, while pink lifts the mood of a design. Using less saturated hues keeps the overall impression subtle rather than garish.
Green and green: a monochrome combination of different green shades is understated but fresh. The dark MSU green pairs nicely with the lighter Celadon green. Keeping both a little on the unsaturated side keeps the energy level and relaxed.
Blue and yellow: “space cadet” blue has the depth to suggest a degree of formality, which is lifted by the addition of Pantone yellow. The colours create a rich combination, almost suggestive of royalty.
Navy blue and orange: an orange hue and a dark navy blue come together to create a feeling of harmony – with a pop of warmth. A rich navy blue works especially well when paired with a lightly tinted pale orange.
Black, brown, and ivory: the colour black olive, a touch lighter than true black, goes well with “wenge”—a dark and reddish-brown—alongside ivory. The resulting colour palette is natural and strong.
Blue, yellow and beige: blue always acts as a solid base colour, and in this case, it brings out the warmth of yellow combined with beige. Sapphire blue, “cyber yellow” and “cosmic latte” come together to deliver a pleasing palette.
Monochrome with an accent: a monochrome palette contains three or more shades of a single colour. Black, various shades of grey, and white are the basis of a design, paired with a pop of colour. Almost every colour works in this combination, but very bright or pale hues tend to work best.
Green and grey: muted and unsaturated greens go nicely with various shades of grey to create a professional and calm impression. A dark shade, “Hooker’s green”, ash grey, and platinum complement one another perfectly.
Orange, pink, and cream (or pink): a very warm palette lifts the mood of any design, while the less saturated pink and cream balance out the bright orange. Pantone 151 (or UT orange) works well with light coral and a or a tinted Tuscan beige, or lightly tinted “unbleached silk” pink
Grey and yellow: this combination is actually Pantone’s Color of the Year 2021, technically “Ultimate grey” and “Illuminating”.
Orchid and Cream Gold: another colour combo from Pantone’s collection. “Orchid” is a shade of pink bordering on a lilac, while “Cream Gold” sits somewhere between brown, pale pink, and yellow. Cream Gold is similar to mellow yellow.
Gold, black, and cream/ivory: if you’re looking for a strong and rich colour scheme, pairing gold with black and cream is the way to go. Metallic gold is best, with a deep black (onyx, or true black) and ivory to balance it out.
Pastels: purple and blue: Pastels are all the rage—and always have been. These gentle hues are easy on the eyes and aesthetically pleasing. Using any two shades can create a serene mood.
Dark grey and orange: the stark contrast between black and orange can be a little jarring. But using a dark grey (nickel or charcoal) and peachy orange hue results in a pleasant contrast that is still quite striking.
Grey, pink clay, yellow-orange, tangerine, royal blue: a palette that is easy on the eye and perfectly balanced between neutral tones of grey, less saturated pink clay, and warmer oranges and yellows. This combination is a little more complex than palettes with two or three hues but always delivers.
Redwood and white: the harmony between these two colours is no surprise. Red and white have always been close friends. Redwood’s deep, dull pink offsets the peaceful white.
Green and gold: using two shades of green alongside two of yellow/gold (not metallic) brings a design to life as it suggests growth and nature. Less saturated hues keep the feel subtle.
Blue and gold: as with green and gold, this combination is easily adjustable for individual preference. Two or three shades of blue complement a royal, metallic gold.
Dark cherry and light green: the deep cherry red is lifted with a very pale green to create a fresh and natural look.
Black and pale pink: black always serves as a good base hue, and in conjunction with pale pink, it gives a design a softer and more delicate feel while still providing a great contrast between light and dark.
Color The Key To Memorable Designs
Choosing the right colour for a design is crucial. A good designer’s portfolio will highlight their skill in selecting the right combinations effectively.
Not only does colour evoke an emotional response, but it also makes a statement about a brand. When used correctly, it leaves a lasting impression. It’s the designer’s job to ensure that this is the end result.