Psychology of color for designers

It’s been a long time since we talked about color, psychology and their role in design. It might be a good time to revise this subject and fix potential gaps in the knowledge.

First, to better understand color and relationships between various hues, let’s start by introducing the color wheel. Color wheel is an easy way we can understand these relationships between primary, secondary and tertiary colors. This wheel can be divided into many “sections” to show numerous hues. From 7 hue-wheel created by Claude Boutet to most used 12 or even more (48 and so on).

Color wheel by Claude Boutet
Color wheel by Claude Boutet


As mentioned above, this wheel contains primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Let’s talk briefly about all three categories.

Primary colors

Primary colors
Primary colors

We have three basic primary colors we can combine to create whole spectrum of all colors that can exist, at least in theory. These three colors or hues are red, yellow and blue. When you try to mix these three colors together they will produce black color.

Secondary colors

Secondary colors
Secondary colors

On the other hand, when we mix two different primary colors, the result will be something called secondary color. By mixing primary colors we can create another three secondary colors. Blue and yellow will produce green, blue and red violet (purple) and finally red and yellow will create orange.

Tertiary colors

Tertiary colors
Tertiary colors

The third and last set of colors is known as tertiary colors. These colors are created by mixing together adjacent primary and secondary color. So, the combination will be yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange and yellow-orange.

Complementary colors

Before we will move to next part of color theory, let’s quickly mention what are complementary colors. When you take a look at color wheel, these colors are on opposite sides. If you mix two complementary colors together they will produce either black or white depending on their pigment. The reason why we are talking about these colors is they can be very useful is two complementary colors play well with each other and are a good and simple combination for your color palette. They create the strongest contrast.

Color properties

Every color has four properties which are hue, tint, tone and shade. These terms are often confused so let’s take a look at each of them to understand them properly.


The simplest definition of hue can be described as the purest or brightest form of any color. This means no tint or shade was added. They are in their default natural state if you want. On the color wheels, hues are the outermost ones. Right on the edge.


When we mix hue with white we will get tint. Tint will vary depending on how much white will you add. With this in mind we can create another inner circle in color wheel.


By adding grey to any hue we will get a tone of this hue. Again, when we add grey to all hues on the color wheel, we will create third inner circle containing tones of these hues.


The last color property to mention is shade. You can think about shade as opposite of tint. So, if we add white to hue in case of tint, now we will add black. Shade is fourth, innermost and also last ring in the color wheel.

The whole color wheel will now have four layers – shade, tone, tint, hue (from center). Now we know all we need about what categories of color do we have and what are their properties. Let’s now move further and explore what effect different colors can have on our mood and psychology.


Red is naturally recognized as a stimulant and draw attention so you can use it to increase visibility of certain elements. However, pay attention to not overdo it because it will can quickly become overwhelming. Another effects of this color are increase of enthusiasm, encouraging action and confidence, providing sense of protection from fear and anxiety and also some body reaction such as increase in energy, heartbeat, blood pressure, respiration and pulse rate.


Yellow color is associated with optimism, happiness and enlightenment. It is also used to inspire, increase energy and help bring creative thoughts by stimulating mental processes and nervous system. Yellow also activates memory so it can be a good idea to use this color in place you use for learning and study. From social point of view it encourages people to communicate.


Any time you want something to look trustworthy, committed and dependable, blue is the best choice. Blue color can help body to produce chemicals to calm and relax the mind.


Like blue, green also has relaxing and calming effects on our nervous system. It can also alleviate depression, anxiety and nervousness. As a color taking up the most of the space in nature, it brings harmony, renewal and also self-control. It is often used with ecology and nature-friendly products and psychologists say that some green (plant, flower) can have positive effects on your work.


When you take the calming effect of blue and mix it with the stimulation power of red, the result will be perfect balance provided by purple. Purple is associated with mysticism, royal qualities and creativity. It uplifts, calm nervous system and offers sense of spirituality.


As a close relative to red, orange brings energy and activity. It encourages socialization and also stimulates appetite. However, pay attention when adding orange to your palette. It is a bit controversial color bringing either strong positive or negative associations and emotions and people might respond stronger to this color than any other.


Pink is exciting, youthful and fun. It shares the energy with red, but adds sensitivity and passion without being overly aggressive. Bright pink stimulate energy and can have similar effects on body like red. It also encourages friendliness and decreases aggression.


Wisdom, knowledge and intellect are the terms grey is associated with. It is long-lasting, sleek and classic color that is also conservative and authoritative. It is good choice when you need some neutral colors. However, grey can be also associated with pessimism so choose the amount you want to use carefully.


White is synonym for cleanliness, neutrality and purity. Doctors, brides, white fences, it all suggest safeness and optimism. White also adds mental clarity, evokes purification of thoughts and actions and helps with new and fresh beginnings.


The last color is black. This one is in most cases associated with power and authority. It can also be used for luxury goods. Pay attention when using black in your project because it can easily become overwhelming. Black also provides sense of emptiness, sophistication, potential and possibilities.

And that is all. Now you have all the necessary information to work properly with colors and create amazing and appealing designs. As a last piece of advice I would suggest you to not be afraid of experimenting with different colors. It will help you build your intuition and sense for design and make your future work easier.

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By Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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