The Basics of Web Design Color Theory

Color theory is a key element of web design. Understanding the basics of color theory can help designers create a visual hierarchy through primary and secondary colors, and effectively communicate their message to viewers.

The Basics of Web Design Color Theory
Claudio Fonte / Unsplash

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is the study of how colors mix, match and interact with each other. It is used to create visual effects and to help designers communicate emotions and messages to their audience. The color theory uses three primary colors - red, yellow, and blue - which can be combined to create secondary colors. From there, the color wheel is used to identify analogous and complementary color scheme combinations that can be used for various design purposes.

The use of color influences viewers' moods, feelings, and experiences, making it an essential part of any design project. The color theory explores how different shades, tints, and hues work together and how they contrast. Knowing these principles will allow designers to create visually appealing artwork that accurately conveys their intended message.

What are the Basics of Color Theory?

Color theory is based on the idea that certain combinations of colors create specific effects in people's minds, such as conveying emotion, creating depth, or enhancing visual appeal. Color theory principles include:

  • The color wheel illustrates how different colors relate to one another.
  • The primary colors (are red, blue, and yellow).
  • The secondary colors (are orange, green, and purple).
Color Wheel Basics
Source: Pinterest

Additionally, neutral colors such as black, white, gray, and brown can be used for accents or backgrounds. Basically, all of them are essential to creating a complementary color scheme. By understanding these concepts and how to use them in web design best, designers can create visually appealing websites with effective messaging.

The Importance of Color Theory in Web Design

Color theory is an essential aspect of web design as it can help to create appealing, user-friendly designs. It can be used to create a visual hierarchy, draw attention to specific elements, and create a strong sense of branding. Colors can also influence users' emotions, making them feel more comfortable and connected with the website.

Color Theory in Web Design
Source: Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Additionally, the color theory guides how colors should be combined to create contrast and harmony in a design. When used effectively, color theory can help to create a visually pleasing website that is easy for users to navigate and understand. By understanding the principles of color theory and applying them in web design, designers can create attractive and engaging websites that will draw in visitors.

Using Color Theory in Web Design to Create Effective Color Palettes

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is a handy tool to help understand color relationships. It is made up of 12 colors, which are generally divided into three groups: primary color, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary colors are red, blue, and yellow; these are the three purest forms of color and are not made by mixing other colors. Instead, they are mixed to form secondary colors. These include purple, orange, and green.

RGB color system
Source: Wiki

Tertiary colors (sometimes intermediate colors) are created by mixing a primary and a secondary color; these include yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, and yellow-orange.

You'll often see color wheels with these twelve colors at various saturation levels, with the colors becoming more saturated as you move to the wheel's outer edge. Understanding how the different colors interact can help you create interesting color combinations for your projects.

Color Relationships

A handful of fundamental color relationships are particularly useful when creating a color palette or a color scheme. These four main relationships are as follows.

Monochromatic Color Scheme: This scheme consists of multiple tints and shades, and saturations of the same color.

Monochrome color schemes
Source: Canva

Complementary Colors: Colors with this relationship are opposites, and their position on the color wheel is opposite.

Source: Cornell University

Analogous Color Scheme: Color palettes using the analogous color relationship feature three or more colors adjacent to the color wheel.

Analogous color schemes
Source: Elle Decor

Triadic Colors: These schemes include three colors at the points of a hypothetical triangle drawn within the color wheel.

Triadic color scheme
Source: Color Meanings

It's usually the easiest to use complementary and analogous colors in web design. Complementary colors are likely to stand out, while analogous colors give a more subtle effect.

Color Warmth

If you remember back to elementary art class, you probably remember cool and warm colors. Warm colors contain more red or yellow, while cool colors are mostly made of blue or purple. Warm colors are hot, passionate, and sometimes happy. However, it's important to note that they can bring a sense of danger or aggression.

Warm color schemes
Source: Clay Banks on Unsplash

Cool colors are chill and remind you of cold weather, icy cold waters, and clear skies. Cool colors, though, can also feel overly formal or even sad. Both warm and cool colors have their uses, but it's important to remember their drawbacks. Neutral colors like black, white, and grey can help balance a color palette and create cohesion. They lack the emotional appeal of the other colors, but they also dampen the impact of the negative emotions brought by the different colors. Using a neutral color as a base color with a more vibrant accent color is an excellent way to bring emotion to a design while keeping it under control. We will touch back on emotions in the Color Psychology section.

Cool color schemes
Source: Dribble

Shades and Tints

If you're familiar with the concept of window tints, these terms may be confusing. Shades are variations of a color created by adding black, while tints are variations created by adding white. Collections of shades or tints of the same color make up monochromatic color schemes, but there are times to use tints and shades in other color palettes. Sometimes it can be used to make an element or color stand out against another in a way that its hue doesn't already.

How to create darker shades
Source: Sumy Designs

Hue, Lightness, Saturation, and Contrast

Hue is, in essence, the position of a color on the color wheel. It gives you an idea of how similar the actual colors are, regardless of their tints, shades, saturation, and lightness.

On the other hand, lightness is a measure of shades or tints. A color with high lightness is closer to white, more tinted, or less shaded. Lightness is sometimes used interchangeably with brightness.

Saturation is the intensity of color. Decreasing it makes the color more muted and duller while increasing it makes it more vibrant. You can think of it as how concentrated the color is, hence the name saturation. The more drops of food coloring you mix into a glass of water, the more saturated the color becomes.

Hue, saturation, and value of colors
Source: Virtual Art Academy

Contrast is a basic measure of how easy it is to differentiate between elements of two colors. Typically, text on webpages needs to have a high contrast profile against the background, leading to a web design trend. Most websites are made with either a "Light Theme" or a "Dark Theme," which represents a white background with black or dark text or a dark background with white or very light text.

Using Color Psychology in Your Color Schemes

Most businesses need to understand psychology and emotion to run smoothly. After all, sales is an art of persuasion, and online sales are no exception. You will want your websites, apps, emails, and more to employ the right colors for the proper purposes. Here is a list of commonly used colors and the emotions most commonly associated with them.

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Red is commonly associated with love, passion, danger, and anger. It can also be energetic and confident and has a broad range of emotional interpretations depending on its lightness and the context it's used in. It's a color commonly used for alerts and warnings, probably hailing from its natural occurrence in blood, but it can also be used to make people hungry.

Red color in web design
Source: Truf Creative


A somewhat unusual color to see in any relative prevalence, orange is a bold and warm color that can be interpreted in a few ways. For one, it can give off an inviting and adventurous impression or one of intense enthusiasm and motivation. Regardless, using such an uncommon color will likely leave a lasting impression on users.

Orange color in web design
Source: Fanta


Yellow is a color that many designers avoid. For one, too much of it can be an eyesore. Also, it's really hard to use well with white. However, that doesn't stop it from causing a strong emotional response, making visitors happy and inspired. Using yellow is a bold move, and while it's not the type of color for everybody, it may be worth implementing into your color scheme as an accent or a secondary color.

Yellow color in web design
Source: Yellow Pony


Often associated with nature and environmentalism, green is a calming and refreshing color selection. It can also be associated with life, health, and growth. Green is a bright color with few drawbacks, as it's not very offensive to the eyes in most shades.

Green color in web design
Source: Getsafe


Blues, even vibrant ones, can be great choices for a web designer. It makes brands look trustworthy and reliable while soothing visitors with its refreshing appeal. It can be an energetic color, but be sure to up the saturation to avoid making a sad, pale blue.

Blue color in web design
Source: Zencargo


The color purple has many associations. It has ties with royalty and luxury, from a time when blue and purple dyes were hard to come by, but it also has a magical and mystical element. Often used with blue, the combination can make a beautiful space vibe that's both calm and futuristic. However, the color can be used in many ways, with its biggest drawback being the likelihood of distracting a user.

Purple color in web design

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, using color theory in web design is a great way to create a visually appealing website. Color theory can be used to select colors that evoke specific emotions and create specific moods, as well as to create a visual hierarchy and draw attention to important features. With careful consideration of how various color combinations interact with each other, web designers have the ability to create aesthetically pleasing websites that are both functional and attractive.