Introduction to colour theory

Colour is important when considering design for a marketing campaign. Different colours cause very physical effects in their observers, and the right colour scheme can mean the difference between a successful marketing campaign and a stagnant one. Below is a short introduction to colour theory as it relates to the modern business landscape.

The colour wheel

Sir Isaac Newton designed a method for combining colours in 1666 that is still in use today. The colour wheel automates the process of picking colour schemes that will look good together. These combinations are known as “colour chords.”


There are many colour wheels that are used for specific purposes; however, the most common version has 12 colours and is based on a colour model known as RYB. In this model there are three primary colours (red, yellow and blue), three secondary colours (green, orange and purple) and six tertiary colours (combinations of primary and secondary colours).

Cool and warm colours

One of the basic distinctions between colours as they relate to marketing psychology is whether they are “warm” or “cool.” Warm colours tend to give the impression of movement and action. As a warm colour, red has even been known to raise the blood pressure of an observer. On the other hand, cool colours tend to soothe and calm the psyche of an observer. In general, colours with more red and yellow hues are considered to be warm while colours with more of a blue hue are considered to be cool.

Tinting, shading and toning

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By adding either white, grey or black to a colour, a tint, tone or shade of that colour is created. Adding white creates a lighter colour and adding black creates a darker colour. Adding grey does not make a colour lighter or darker necessarily, it simply changes the way that the eye perceives it.

Creating attractive colour schemes

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Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel are considered complementary. For instance, red and green are complementary colours: this is why they are seen so often together, especially at Christmas. Complementary colours tend to play off of one another, each enhancing the vibrancy of the other without clashing.

In most cases, complementary colours are used when you want something to stand out in a campaign. However, the overall effectiveness is diminished if complementary colours are overused. This type of scheme is also horrible for text; it should only be used for image-based marketing campaigns.

Analogous colour schemes are created from colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel. The effect is natural and soothing as opposed to the vibrant effect of complementary colours.

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Triadic colour schemes are created by creating an equilateral triangle around the colour wheel. This scheme is great for a campaign that needs texture and depth to showcase quality in a product or a service.

By using the colours that are selected by creating a square or a rectangle around the colour wheel, many interesting effects can also be created. However, rectangle and square colour schemes can quickly become busy. These schemes are best used if one colour is dominant and the others are used as accents.

What colour combinations appeal to you?

Brittany Giles is the Social Media Specialist at The Printing House.

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