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What is Color Theory and Why it Matters in Design

Updated: Apr 19

Understand how to unleash the power of color and its design impact. At the cross section of science and art, you will find Color Theory. Much like other aspects of architecture, interiors, and design - there are underlying principles deeply rooted in mathematics and physics that are tried and true guidelines for achieving objective success regardless of subjective tastes.

Simply put, the way humans process and interpret color can be used to your advantage in creating gorgeous, cohesive and compelling spaces.

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Associated Topics:

  • Top 10 Steps for Crafting Your Whole House Palette

  • How to Manifest the Mood Board of Your Dreams


What is Color Theory?

In design, color theory refers to the principles and guidelines that govern the use of colors to create visually appealing and effective compositions backed by the science of how the eye receives light. To effectively strategize the use of color, you must understand the following elements:

  • The Color Wheel

  • Primary Colors

  • Secondary Colors

  • Tertiary Colors

  • Color Harmony and Relationships

  • Color Contrast in Hue, Value and Saturation

  • Color Temperature

  • Neutrals

Understanding The Color Wheel.

The color wheel is a visual representation of the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors arranged in a circular format. It serves as a fundamental tool in color theory, showcasing the relationships between colors and their positions on the wheel.

Primary Colors: Red, blue, and yellow are considered the primary colors. They cannot be created by mixing other colors and are used as the foundation for all other colors.

Secondary Colors: Orange, green, and purple are the secondary colors. They are created by mixing equal parts of two primary colors.

Tertiary Colors: are formed by mixing a primary color with a neighboring secondary color on the color wheel. They provide a wider range of colors and allow for more nuanced combinations.

Color Harmony.

Color Harmony: Color harmony refers to the pleasing combination of colors in a design. Different color harmonies, such as complementary (opposite on the color wheel), analogous (adjacent on the color wheel), or triadic (equally spaced on the color wheel), create different visual effects and moods.

Monochromatic: Monochromatic colors on the color wheel refer to a color scheme that is based on a single hue, but includes various shades, tints, and tones of that hue. These variations are achieved by adjusting the color's value (lightness or darkness) and saturation (intensity or purity).

Complementary: Complementary colors are pairs of colors that are positioned directly opposite each other on the color wheel and create contrast. Complementary color relationships include Red and Green, Blue and Orange, Yellow and Purple.

Analogous: Analogous colors are groups of colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. They share similar undertones and create a harmonious and cohesive color palette. Analogous color schemes are often used in design to achieve a sense of unity, balance, and natural progression. A typical analogous color scheme may include three neighboring colors such as yellow, yellow-green, and green. Another example could be a combination of blue, blue-violet, and violet

Triadic: Triadic colors are sets of three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, forming an equilateral triangle. Triadic color schemes provide a balanced and vibrant combination of colors that offer a high level of contrast while maintaining visual harmony. triadic color schemes can also include variations of these colors and their tints, shades, or tones. Triadic color combinations also work well beyond the physical environment and are widely used in various other artistic contexts, such as branding, graphic design, and illustrations.

My favorite Color Harmony Tools:

  • Adobe Kuler: I often use this tool as a quick reference and for interactive inspiration when selecting colors for designs and visual diagramming. Adobe Kuler, now known as Adobe Color, is an online color scheme generator and exploration tool provided by Adobe. It provides an intuitive and user-friendly interface that allows you to experiment with different color combinations.. I recommend clicking around the different color harmonies to better understand the principles and your preferences.

  • Design Seeds: Provides color inspiration for design and creative projects via photographs of a certain color range and aesthetic. It offers curated color palettes based on photographs and nature, helping users discover harmonious color combinations. For beginners, Design Seeds is more intuitive and less scientific, and helps to more broadly gauge preferences or desired palette combinations.

Color Contrast.

Color contrast in color theory and interior design refers to the difference in hue, value (lightness or darkness), or saturation between two or more colors. It is an important consideration as it influences visual interest, legibility, and the overall composition of a space. Here's how color contrast operates in these contexts:

Hue Contrast: Hue contrast involves using colors that are different in their primary hue or color family. Color harmonies become critical when working with hue contrasts.

Value Contrast: Color Value is the amount of light reflected or absorbed by a color, ranging from white (high value or light) to black (low value or dark). Value contrast refers to the amount of light reflected by a color and the relationship of lightness or darkness between colors. High value contrast, such as pairing a light color with a dark color, creates strong visual separation and can draw attention to specific elements or areas within a space. This can be quite powerful in enhancing a space, particularly with hardware accents such as cabinet pulls, door hardware, and light fixtures.

Saturation Contrast: Involves using colors that differ in their level of saturation (the intensity or purity of a color). Pairing highly saturated colors with desaturated or muted colors creates a vibrant and dynamic contrast. A safe way to add pops of saturation contrast is through decor items (that can also be easily swapped out over time).

Color Temperature.

Colors can be perceived as warm (such as red, orange, and yellow) or cool (like blue, green, and purple), which can evoke different emotions and moods. Warm colors tend to appear closer and more energetic, while cool colors create a sense of calmness and distance.

Color temperature is often measured on the Kelvin (K) scale in lighting. Higher Kelvin values indicate cooler colors, while lower Kelvin values indicate warmer colors. For example, a light source with a higher Kelvin value, like daylight or a blue sky, is considered cool, while a lower Kelvin value, like a candle flame or incandescent bulb, is considered warm.


Neutrals are another important part of creating a color scheme. Gray, black, white, brown, tan, and off-white are generally considered neutral colors. Browns, tans, and off-whites tend to make color schemes feel warmer (as they’re really all just tones, shades, and tints of orange and yellow). Gray will take on a warm or cool impression depending on surrounding colors. Black and white can also look either warm or cool depending on the surrounding colors.

Color Symbolism.

In the professional environment, we strive to deeply root our design decisions in compelling concepts that we can draw from for inspiration, provide cohesive continuity of expression, and generally tell a really, really good story. Colors can carry symbolic meanings and cultural associations. Different colors have distinct psychological effects and can evoke specific moods or emotions. Color symbolism can be used to reinforce a specific concept, theme, or narrative. For instance, earth tones and natural greens may be employed to create a sense of nature and environmental harmony in a sustainable design project. Colors associated with a specific culture or time period can be utilized to evoke a particular style or historical context. By aligning color choices with the intended concept or theme, you can strengthen the overall design narrative to make your space more inspirational or attractive to future buyers.

Now, How to Use Color Theory Build Your Best Design Scheme:

Take it to the boards - the mood boards. Despite years in the industry, I will forever be heavily reliant on visual aids to iterate the best design solutions. Most designers are. Whether your best tools are to develop conceptual diagrams, generate photorealistic renderings or pull physical samples, visual aids are critical to the decision making process. A mood board is a quick and easy way to digitally collage the big design elements together. Take a scroll through our different design boards on our main page, "Moods."

Here is a step-by-step guide on How to Manifest the Mood Board of Your Dreams. In essence, start by collecting images, photos, and materials that inspire you and represent the style or ambiance you want to achieve and swap them out with actual products - such as finishes, furniture, paint colors, or hardware accents, as you finalize your project scope and lock in design decisions. My favorite paid programs are from Adobe (such as Photoshop and Illustrator), but you can certainly succeed with free softwares as well such as Canva or SampleBoard. I have also been loving Canva Pro for its additional features and ease of use on mobile devices.

Building a mood board is a creative process, and it's okay to experiment with different layouts and elements until you achieve the desired visual representation of your interior design vision. Have fun with it!


Next Steps:

  • How to Craft Your Whole House Palette

  • How to Manifest the Mood Board of Your Dreams


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