Elements of Design





Color is one of the most powerful and obvious elements we have at our disposal. There are many conflicting color theories relating to the structure of the color wheel. Confusion also exists in the definition of various color related terms.


The ideas expressed here are based on the teachings of Johannes Itten from the Bauhaus in the 1920’s. His book, The Art of Color, is still the clearest and most logical guide to color theory. (1a).

Twelve part color wheel

Primary Colors

Red Yellow and Blue are the three primary colors. From them all other colors can be mixed. The primary colors can not be mixed from any other colors. These three hues are the foundation of all color theory

Primary Colors

Secondary Colors

Orange, Green and Violet are the three secondary colors. They fall between each of the primaries. Each one is mixed from the two primaries either side of it.

Secondary Colors

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors fall between any primary color and it’s adjacent secondary. eg. Blue/Green falls between Blue and Green. Tertiary colors are mixed from only two Primaries.

Tertiary Colors

Compound Colors

Compound colors are mixed from all three primaries. They are all the Browns, earth colors Khaki’s etc. In this example mixing between yellow and Violet produces a series of compound colors. They contain varying mixtures of all three primaries (Violet being a mixture of Red and Blue).

Compound Colors

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel. Maximum color contrast exists between complementary colors

Complementary Colors

Saturated Colors

Saturated colors are all the Hues around the outside of the color wheel. They are either primary, secondary or tertiary colors. They contain no more than two primaries and no black or white.

Saturated Colors

Tints and Shades

A tint is any color mixed with white.
A shade is any color mixed with black.

Tints and Shades

All Colors

If we make a color wheel and fill in all the compound colors, then make a series of tints of all those colors above the wheel and a series of shades of all those colors below the wheel, we will have produced a cylinder containing all possible colors.

All Colors

Color Theory Note

For clarity there is a linear division between all colors in these illustrations. Theroetically, they should grade seamlessly into one another.

A color wheel made from a compressed range of compound colors, even though all the saturated hues are missing, will still satisfy us that there is a full range of colors. The color wheel below, made from colored river stones, while missing saturated colors, still appears to have a full range of colors.

River stone color wheel

Color Definitions

Hue – the descriptive name of the color. eg. Red, Green, Orange, Pink are all Hues.

Primary Color – Red, Yellow and Blue, the only three pigments that cant be mixed from other pigments. These are the basis of all other colors.

Secondary Color – Orange, Green and Violet – Three colors falling half way between each or the primaries and containing a mixture of only two primaries.

Tertiary Color – a color between each primary and its adjacent secondary eg. Red/Orange between Red and Orange.

Saturated Color – a color containing no more than two primaries and no black or white.

Compound Color – a color containing a mixture of the three primaries eg. brown, khaki, yellow ochre, Burnt Sienna.

Complementary Color – opposite colors on the color wheel. eg. Red/Green, Yellow/Violet

Harmonious Color – adjacent colors on the color wheel eg. Yellow/ Green, Green and Blue/Green.

Analogous Colors – Colors beside each other on the color wheel.

Value or Tone – The lightness or darkness of a color eg. Yellow is a high value (or light tone) color. Violet is a low value (or dark tone) color.

Shade – any color with black added.

Tint – any color with white added.

Color Application

The human eye is believed to be able to distinguish 10 million different colors (1). The task of arranging a selection of these colors in satisfactory manner might seem a little daunting if it weren’t for a number of helpful guidlines.

Analogous Colors (Harmonious)

Analogous colors are those located beside one another around a color wheel. They can come from the saturated outer ring or a compound inner ring of the color wheel.

Analogous colors

Analogous Color Harmony – John Lovett, Mozart to The Beastie Boys, 1998




Complementary Colors (Contrasting)

The simplest contrasting color arrangement comes from using a pair of complementary colors. As in any color arrangement, allowing one color (or color temperature) to dominate will give a more pleasing result.

Complementary Color Contrast




Color Triads

Color Triads are a slightly more complicated way to select a harmonious arrangement. The simplest way to think of a triad is to imagine two complementaries, then replace one of these with the two colors either side of it.
Allowing either the cool or the warm colors to dominate will result in a less confusing design.

Paul Cezanne, Boy in a Red Vest 1888 – 1890 – 65.7cm x 54.7cm

Color Ripple Effect

The strange shimmering effect of placing together complimentary colors of the same tonal value, is a technique used to animate an area of a painting or design. For the effect to work the tones must be identical.

Complimentary Colors of the same tonal value

The color ripple effect can be seen in the painting below, drawing attention to the focal point and adding a chaotic confusion to the chickens head.

Chicken © John Lovett

“Chook” Mixed Media on 300gsm paper  © John Lovett 2011

Roy Lichenstein comments that: “Color is crucial in painting, but it is very hard to talk about. There is almost nothing you can say that holds up as a generalization, because it depends on too many factors: size, modulation, the rest of the field, a certain consistency that color has with forms, and the statement you’re trying to make.”(2)

So, although we think of colors as independent, isolated entities, we can see their effect is greatly modified by numerous other factors. Always consider color in relation to surrounding colors.

Consider the intent of the design or artwork – the colors chosen for Corporate branding will be influenced by the type of business. Law firms, solicitors and accountants are more suited to darker, subdued color arrangements that would be out of place with an ice cream or confectionary company. Doctors, dentists and health services require cool, clean and clinical color arrangements as opposed to the earthy compound colors that would suit a logging company.

After Color

Also known as Simultaneous Contrast. “Its effect is derived from the law of complementary colors, according to which each pure color physiologically demands its opposite color – its complement. If the color is absent, the eye will produce it simultaneously”. (3)

This effect can be seen in the illustration below. Stare at the colored flag for 30 second then immediately fix your eyes on an area of white screen. The after image of the flag will appear in its correct colors.

Simultaneous Contrast Illustration
Simultaneous Contrast

This same effect influences neighbouring colors in a design or painting. In the illustration below the small grey rectangles in the center of each colored square are an identical grey but, because of simultaneous contrast, they appear to lean towards the complimentary of the surrounding color.

Simultaneous Contrast

Color Psychology

Apart from a few hard wired responses, our reaction to color is generally a cultural one.
Over thousands of years the concept of cool/pale being up and warm/dark being down has become part of the human sub conscious. Reversing this creates an uneasy tension which can, in some circumstances, be used to attract attention. At other times adds unnecessary confusion.

Our brain accepts light tone cool color as up and dark and warm as down. When this is reversed we must mentally adjust.


The other hard wired fact is that desaturated and compound colors are accepted and not really noticed whereas saturated colors demand more immediate attention.
The natural response triggered by the colors on this wasp, is used to warn against dangerous shoulders on a roadway.

Our hardwired response to danger signs in nature carry over into symbols of warning we create.

It is wrong to generalise and say that color alone produces a predictable psychological effect.


There are many contradicting lists of colors and their perceived effects.
We read of Red being the color of love and passion in one list and symbolizing anger and rage in another. Similarly, Yellow is said, on one hand, to generate feelings of joy and happiness associated with the sun and on the other hand feelings of weakness and cowardice.

The cultural association of color is much more powerful. Consider the feelings of nationalism generated by the combination of Red, White and Blue. Even to people outside of The UK, France and The USA, these colors have grown to symbolise western culture.

Unmistakable colors of western patriotism.

White as a symbol for marriage is a western tradition. The Chinese use White as a color for funerals. The association of white with innocence and purity belongs to our western culture. In ancient China, red was the color of love and joy and is still the favoured color for a Chinese wedding dress.

White as a symbol of purity is a western tradition.

Color and Fashion

Color is one of the most flexible elements of the fashion industry. Millions of dollars change hands each year predicting and discovering what the following years color trends will be. This effects many facets of life – The clothing industry, motor vehicles, interior design, architecture, electronics –  any consumer product must look right if it is to be successful.

What is acceptable for one era will no doubt be unacceptably old fashioned in the next. During the 1980’s brown and beige were popular color options for new cars and few offered black.


Today it is difficult to buy a new beige car and black cars are everywhere.

Around the same time that beige cars filled our parking lots, pale blue and mauve were popular colors for elderly ladies to dye their hair, today it is rarely seen.

Dupont Auto Color Popularity 2012 (North America

Dupont Auto Color Popularity 2012 (North America)

Color fashion has also had an impact on film and television. Fifteen years ago warm, saturated  color grading was popular, today the trend is for cool and desaturated. In ten years time it will probably be different again.

So although colors relate and interact in certain ways to one another, there is no hard and fast correctness when it comes to color. Fashion and culture have a strong impact, the psychological effect of individual colors has a far less noticeable impact.

1a) The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of ColorBy Johannes IttenEdition: 2, revised, illustratedPublished by John Wiley and Sons, 1974

(1) Rainwater C, 1971, Light and Color, Golden Press, New York, p.125

(2) Tomkins, C; Lichtenstein, R; Adelman, B ©1987Roy Lichtenstein : mural with blue brushstrokeH.N. Abrams, New York, p.90

(3) Itten J, 1975, Design and Form, Thames and Hudson, London, p.32

Author: John Lovett