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Is There a Science to Picking Colors?

Igor Ovsyannykov March 31, 2021 · 7 min read

Can you imagine a life without the ability to distinguish color?

Color brings life to everything you create, and it can boost specific reactions or emotions. This is, without a doubt, one of the best known facts in design, as proven by color’s ability to make or break any masterpiece. No matter how insightful the design is in black and white, the way color is laid over it plays a significant role in its success.

Knowing this, designers often pride themselves with the way they choose their color schemes. And, although some say that they are just naturally gifted, is it possible that science is also involved in mixing the right colors?

Yes, there is also a science to picking colors. Depending on the final effect that you want to achieve, there is a process to bring your design from point A to point B as far as colors are concerned. Let’s take a look:

Pure, Tint, Shade, or Tone? Color Basics


Knowing the basics of using pure colors, as well as choosing whether to tint, to shade, or to tone, adds a lot to any kind of graphic work. It somehow sets the mood and directs the emotions of the audience to go lighter or darker, heavier or lighter.

Pure colors are the original hues unmixed and unblended. They are bright and raw, and are often used in youthful, vibrant, cheerful, or summery designs. They are also perfect for designers who are hoping to make a bold statement.

When pure colors are mixed with white, this is where tints are created. They create a lighter and peaceful version of pure colors, and are often used to convey more dainty looks. They are also often used to complement brighter colors.

Tones are produced if you take pure colors and add some gray into them. If you’re going all out, you can also add black and come up with shades. These darker versions of pure colors are often used for that serious, more formal effect. They can also be used to tone down brighter shades.

Deciphering the Meanings behind Colors


Aside from choosing the tone, shade, or tint of colors, the base color itself also brings something to the table through the emotions usually associated to it. Different colors also have a deeper meaning, and creating a work of art also means being able to align these meanings to the message that you want to convey.

Blue, for example, is often associated with tranquility and peace. As the shade becomes deeper and darker however, it starts to covey security and integrity as well. Other words that you may hear people associate with the color are trust, loyalty, conservatism, and frigidity.

Green is most closely associated to freshness and growth. It is also used to show balance and self-reliance, but could also be a sign of possessiveness and envy.

Yellow is bursting with energy and happiness, and shows optimism and cheerfulness. It could also be a sign of caution, and could be used to portray cowardice, impatience, and criticism. Yellow is also the color used when referring to the mind or one’s intellect.

As for purple, it is a color that is often associated with luxury and spirituality. It also often represents the human imagination. As for its negative connotation, it can be seen as the color of the immature and impractical.

The color red oozes with passion and action, as evidenced by its brightness and the immediate surge of energy that one feels when seeing it. It is also the color used to describe ambition, determination, anger, and sexual passion.

Every color has its own meaning and can greatly affect a person’s attitude and mood, regardless of whether they understand how you define the color or not. It is something rooted in the subconscious, making it a tool that visual artists should always use to their advantage.

Knowing How to Create Contrast

A perfect representation of the basic rules of contrast is the fact that books are always designed to use black text against a white background. Generally, dark colors work best with bright colors. Of course, what makes design so interesting is the fact that these rules are not always applicable. After all, some projects defy the basic rules of design but still end up looking (and working) fantastic.

Basically, every color has a specific contrast value. Black has the darkest value, while white has the lightest. Now let’s take a look at the color yellow. Yellow also has a very light value. Because of this, it is very difficult to read when set against a white background. Set it against a black or gray background however, and the results are dramatic. This is why a lot of road signs appear in yellow and black.

As for blue or purple, they have dark contrast values. This means that they work extremely well against a light background, but will not be as readable when set against a dark background.

Understanding Light Wavelengths

Wavelength Chart

Another thing that every designer should consider when choosing colors is the way in which the human eye and brain react to specific hues. The brain deciphers the messages sent by the eyes as the light from the colors bounces off of the eyes’ cones. This allows you to have a deeper understanding of how colors work together.

Our eyes prove to be most responsive to the color yellow. They show moderate response to red and green, and are almost unresponsive to the colors blue and purple. This explains why different colors have different degrees of luminance even if they are shown as pure colors.

Take a look at the colors yellow and blue. They provide high contrast together because of how our eyes and brain reacts to them. Since yellow and blue are at the opposite ends of the pole as far as our eyes’ sensitivity to them are concerned, they actually go well together.

As for green and red, they have similar levels of luminance, which means that they also have poor contrast when put together. This sensitivity to light wavelengths also explains why black and white prove to be the best colors when it comes to 3D designs, while green and red are the worst colors to use in the same scenario.

Using the Right Tools


So whether you think that color choice is completely subjective or scientific, there are certain tools that allow you to compare and contrast colors and see which of them work well together. Without the proper tools, you could take a long time deciding on colors alone, especially if you want each project to be as unique as possible.

These tools prove to be very efficient at helping designers choose their colors:

Of course, each of these tools only serve as a guide to make the process of choosing colors for any project faster and more efficient. This does not mean, however, that these tools have perfected the art of putting colors together. Above all things, humans are still very diverse creatures that can be so much alike but are also so different in many ways. This mix of similarities and differences make the work of a designer harder as they decide how to capture audiences — especially with the use of color.

At the end of the day, intuition and empathy are still the best guides. Although science does play a huge role in mixing and matching colors, the fact still remains that as long as humans are in charge of their feelings, emotions, and decisions, the way they look at colors will continue to evolve.

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About the Author
Igor Ovsyannykov

We create fonts, graphics, and produce aesthetically pleasing photos.

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