Basics of Color Theory in Web Design

Master the essentials of color theory for website design. Enhance user experience and visual appeal with strategic color choices.

Basics of Color Theory in Web Design - Clay

The idea behind color theory is that certain color combinations can convey specific emotions, such as depth and appeal to sight, among other feelings, while others do not. Among the principles of this discipline are;
Different colors relate to each other on a color wheel.
Primary colors consist (of red, blue, and yellow).
Secondary colors include (orange, green, and purple).
Moreover, neutrals like black, white, gray, and brown can be used for accents or backgrounds. Designers can produce visually attractive websites with effective messaging when they understand these principles correctly.

What Is Color Theory?

Color theory involves understanding how various colors intermingle and interact. It assists in creating visual effects or helping designers communicate emotions to their target audience. To create secondary colors, artists use the three primary ones, which include red, yellow, and blue. From there, it becomes easy to determine analogous and complementary combinations using a color wheel that can be employed for different design purposes. This use of color affects viewers' moods emotionally; therefore, it’s imperative in any project involving artistry. Theories about colors delve into knowing how different shades and tints work together when they contrast each other. Knowledge about these laws will be helpful in making beautiful artworks that would convey certain messages rightly as intended.

The Importance of Color Theory in Web Design

Understanding color theory is essential because it forms an integral part of creating captivating designs that appeal directly to the users, regardless of whether it's a website or user interface design concept. It helps establish hierarchy, directs attention towards particular elements, and builds a strong brand presence. Colors can also affect people on an emotional level, thus making them feel more relaxed and attached to the site itself. Besides, color theory instructs which primary and secondary colors should be used to develop contrast and design harmony. If fully exploited, color theory can result in a visually stimulating website that can encourage a seamless user navigation process and understanding. Website designers with knowledge of color theory and how to apply it will make websites visually appealing to be visited by others.

Photo by davisuko on Unsplash
blue lemon

Using Color Theory in Web Design to Create Effective Color Palettes

The Color Wheel

One way to understand website color relationships is by employing the color wheel. It comprises twelve colors, typically grouped into three sets: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow; these three colors are purest as they are not formed from a mixture of other colors but combine to create secondary ones. These include purple, orange, and green. Tertiary or intermediate colors result from combining one primary color and one secondary hue, which consist of yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, and yellow-orange. You can find such wheels with twelve colors represented at different intensity levels, with saturation increasing towards the rim.

Projects that use many shades in one color should focus on monochromatic schemes.

However, if you intend to use the latter in your website design, then it is best to use only two types. For example, this will be distinguished by the aforementioned complementary spectrum, while, for instance, analogous shades will seem more blended.

Color Relationships

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

  • Monochrome Color Schemes: This scheme consists of multiple shades, tints, and saturations of the same color.
  • Complementary Colors: Colors with this relationship are opposites, and their position on the color wheel is opposite.
  • Analogous Colors: Color palettes using the analogous color relationship feature three or more colors adjacent to the color wheel.
  • Triadic Colors: These schemes include three colors at the points of a hypothetical triangle drawn within the color wheel.

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.

Source: Flickr
analogous color scheme

Color Warmth

In elementary art class, you probably learned about warm and cool colors. Cool colors are made mostly with blues or purples, whilst warm colors have a lot of reds or yellows at first glance, but it should also be noted that they may connote danger or aggression.

Those cold weather-like conditions remind us of cool colors because they are icy cold waters, chilling winter winds, etc.… However, they may also look too somber or even formalistic. Even though both types have merits, it is also necessary to recall their demerits, particularly when making color choices for designs.

The blending aspect brings moderation by causing reflection on feelings elicited through different hue intensities, often leading to a well-balanced harmony among the various parts of the webpage, which would, on its own, irk readers who might end up moving away from such a site.

Source: Flickr
color wheel - cool & warm colors

Shades and Tints

If you have ever heard of window tints, these two words might confuse you. Shades are made by adding black, while tints are created by adding white to the same color. For example, when all the shades and tints of yellow were arranged in a color palette, it became very clear that there were times to use them in other color schemes.

Source: Flickr
Color Wheel - Hue, Tint, Tone, & Shade

Hue, Lightness, Saturation, and Contrast

According to an artist’s perspective, hue is the position of a color on the color wheel; that means it gives you a rough idea of how close the actual colors are despite their tints, shades, and lightness.

On the other hand, brightness refers to either tints or shades. The brighter color concerns white or when they are more tinted or less shaded. It can also be used alternately with lightness.

Saturation measures the intensity of color. Decreasing it makes the color less bright and duller, while increasing it makes it more vibrant. This could be considered a measure of how thickly concentrated this stuff is – so “saturation” fits. As you add more drops of food coloring into water, its color becomes saturated.

Contrast measures how distinct elements in two colors are from each other. Usually, text on webpages needs to have high contrast against backgrounds, leading to web design trends in which most websites are either a “Light Theme” or “Dark Theme,” which comprises a scenario with a light background with black or dark font. Another one consists of a dark background, white font, and very light text.

Using Color Psychology in Your Color Schemes

Most businesses rely on understanding psychology and emotion to succeed. Sales, after all, is an art of persuasion, and online sales are no different. For this reason, you will want your websites, apps, emails, and more to use appropriate colors for different purposes. Here is a list of some commonly used colors and what emotions they usually evoke.


Red represents love, passion, danger, and anger at most times. Still, depending on its lightness and context, it may be interpreted differently by people who see it because this particular hue can also appear energetic and confident. Even though it is mostly associated with alerts/warnings probably due to blood, the color red is sometimes used to make someone hungry.


An unusual color seen uncommonly relative to others, orange is a strong and warm color that can be perceived differently. One of the impressions it gives off is that of being welcoming and adventurous or having extreme enthusiasm and motivation. Either way, graphic design using such a rare color will certainly make users remember.


Many designers only work with yellow as much as possible since it is too much. In addition, white shades do not blend well with it at all. Nevertheless, it has a strong emotional impact that makes visitors feel happy and motivated. Yellow is daring, though not everyone’s preferred hue; hence, it might be worth considering as an accent hue in your palette.


Often associated with nature and environmentalism, green is a very calming and fresh color. It also indicates life, health, or growth sometimes. Green is usually not offensive to the eyes in most shades because it’s bright.


Even when they are vibrant, blues can still make great choices for web designs. It looks trustworthy and dependable to brands while giving website users a relaxing feel through its coolness. Blue can also appear lively but ensures you increase saturation to not create sad, pale blue.


There are various associations with the color purple, associated with royalty and luxury when blue and purple dyes were scarce. It is magical as well as mystical. Usually combined with blue, this mixture can create a beautiful, calm, yet futuristic ambiance. However, this color has numerous uses, though it may require more work to concentrate while using it for that purpose.

About Clay

Clay is a UI/UX design & branding agency in San Francisco. We team up with startups and leading brands to create transformative digital experience. Clients: Facebook, Slack, Google, Amazon, Credit Karma, Zenefits, etc.

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About Clay

Clay is a UI/UX design & branding agency in San Francisco. We team up with startups and leading brands to create transformative digital experience. Clients: Facebook, Slack, Google, Amazon, Credit Karma, Zenefits, etc.

Learn more

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