color in design 101

Color is a big part of our life. Color influences our emotions, it tells us things about our surroundings and it is often seen as a form of beauty. A well colored plate of food will taste better with nice colors. The food on your left will look tasty even if you might not like the taste of it. How come?

Imagine getting a place of French fries in front of you but instead of golden brown the fries are light blue. Would you eat it?

Graphic design is not really different from food design. Color is important to give the viewers a proper impression and the right message.


Let’s talk technical. To understand color you must understand what makes color, Light! Light is electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength that is visible to the human eye. Now in less scientific terms: Light is a type of waveform. The light is only visible to the human eye if the length of the wave is between 380 and 780 nanometers long (can vary from person to person). Going through that spectrum you will find literally all the colors of the rainbow. The light that is outside of our own sight spectrum are things like infra red, ultra violet and x-ray.

So what turn ordinary white light into colors? Well, white is the combination of all different wave lengths. Color is made by abstraction of some of those wavelengths to create colors. Like on a surface parts of the white light can be absorbed into the material and only reflect a specific wavelength. Other techniques use thing like filters (colored glass) where the wavelength that is not let through the material.

So, Light is some sort of electromagnetic radiation in a waveform and depending on the specific wavelength it has a specific color.

Colors interaction

Colors mix, and they don’t… If you take what we know about light you can reason why. If you combine wave into one you get a new wave that is the average of both. So if you mix red light with blue light the average will be purple.

But what the combination of light is the complete opposite of the spectrum. Well you get something that seems to be black. Because of the difference in oscillation in colors like yellow and blue you will get a result that is black. And black is the absence of light! If you combine Red and Aqua green you will see a white line because the interference is different.

If you look closely to the experiment to the left you can see what I’m talking about. There seems to be a line between different colors. The line is not actually there but it is caused by the interference between the colors. The interference can be bigger and smaller of the colors clash more or less. From the main experiment you could see that there are different grades of interferences. Look at the yellow and Aqua green you will also see interference but it is different.

You can use how colors interact with one another in certain situations. This does not always work though as it is sometimes straining for the eyes to look at. Making things seem restless and moving while they should be assisting your viewers and not making them work harder.

Color Psychology

What emotion we connect to a color is very complicated. It is also very different for other  It has to do with cultural background, upbringing, age and gender. Our perception of color is also largely influenced by what we see in the media. What are the trends and what the brands are that we use.

If we look at age and gender as influence on what we think about colors we need to think also a bit cultural. But in general younger people tend to prefer brighter colors, this is shared across cultures. Compared to colors like pink and blue for boys and girls that are heavily influenced by culture.

Culture is almost always the main influence for our perception op colors. The Colors In Culture info-graphic by Information Is Beautiful creates a nice overview of what cultural references we have to colors. Even this does not always correct as culture is subject to change and will change over the generations. Trends can also influence culture momentarily but also permanent. Brown has come in and out of favor continuously in the fashion industry. Heavily favored in the mid 1960’s and come back into fashion in the beginning of the 21st century.

Interestingly enough context is also very important to what we think of colors. Social networks widely accepted the color blue as their color. Other fields also have specific Hue’s that are associated with it. Because of these socially accepted colors people have a certain expectancy.

The lessen in color psychology is mostly one of avoiding wrong messages and making your design more like to be received well.


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