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What Is Colour Theory And How Can You Use It?

Have you ever wondered why brands use the colours that they do? Why McDonald’s has used red and yellow since it started back in 1955? What about Starbucks, with its simple green and white?


There’s actually a good reason for it. In branding and design, colours are never random (or at least shouldn’t be). Specific colours go together while others don’t, and different colours can elicit different emotions or physiological reactions in people.


It’s a phenomenon called colour theory, and any brand can (and should) use it when designing a new logo or making other big visual identity decisions.


What is colour theory?

In simple terms, colour theory is a guide that explains how colours can be mixed and the visual effects of different colour combinations. It categorises colours and creates a logical structure for their use.


There are three basic categories to colour theory: the colour wheel, colour harmony, and colour context.


The colour wheel


Even if you have no art background, you’ve probably seen a colour wheel before.


The colour wheel is based on the primary colours: red, yellow and blue. It’s then expanded to show the shades in between. There’s secondary colours -- green, purple and orange -- and tertiary colours -- like red-orange or blue-purple (or indigo).


A colour wheel shows where the hues of different colours meet: where light orange becomes dark yellow, or where blue meets red to create purple. To learn more about how colours are formed and how the colour wheel works, read this excellent article from Creative Bloq.


Colour Harmony


You would never wear an orange top and purple trousers… or a green dress with a red scarf (unless it was Christmas). That’s because not all colours go well together. In design, It involves colours that come together to create something visually appealing -- something that’s pleasing to the eye, like a harmonious piece of music is pleasing to the ear.


Harmony can be created using analogous colours (side-by-side on a 12-point colour wheel) or complementary colours (directly opposite each other on the colour wheel).


Colour harmony can also be used in the opposite way if you want to make something chaotic or boring. For example, colour disharmony can be used in horror movies or whenever you want someone to feel uncomfortable.


Colour Context

Have you ever noticed how colours can appear different based on their surroundings? For example, a red box on a white background stands out more than the same red box on an orange background.


How we use colour theory in our work

At Colouring Department, we work with our clients to choose colours that evoke the emotions they want customers to feel. If a client already has colours in mind, we can use our understanding of colour theory to figure out how the client’s choices will be accepted in the market.


If you’d like to find out more about how you can make colour theory work for your brand, or are in need of a general brand consultation, get in touch -- we’d love to advise.


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