Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology


If you’re going to use color effectively in your designs, you’ll need to know some color concepts and color theory terminology. A thorough working knowledge of concepts like chroma, value and saturation is key to creating your own awesome color schemes. In Part 1: The Meaning of Color of our color theory series, we covered the meanings of different colors. Here, we’ll go over the basics of what affects a given color, such as adding gray, white or black to the pure hue, and its effect on a design, with examples of course.

[Offtopic: by the way, did you know that Smashing Magazine has one of the most influential and popular Twitter accounts? Join our discussions and get updates about useful tools and resources — follow us on Twitter.]

Hue

Hue is the most basic of color terms and basically denotes an object’s color. When we say “blue,” “green” or “red,” we’re talking about hue. The hues you use in your designs convey important messages to your website’s visitors. Read part 1 of this article for the meanings conveyed by various hues.

Examples

Happytwitmas in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
The primary hue of the background and some of the typography on the Happy Twitmas website is bright red.

Chapolito in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Using a lot of pure hues together can add a fun and playful look to a design, as done in the header and elsewhere on this website.

Estilorama in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Pure red is a very popular hue in Web design.

Mix in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Mix uses a number of pure hues in its header and logo.

Steveottenad in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Green in its purer forms is seen less often and so stands out more than some other colors.

Chroma

Chroma refers to the purity of a color. A hue with high chroma has no black, white or gray in it. Adding white, black or gray reduces its chroma. It’s similar to saturation but not quite the same. Chroma can be thought of as the brightness of a color in comparison to white.

In design, avoid using hues that have a very similar chroma. Opt instead for hues with chromas that are the same or a few steps away from each other.

Examples

Moviestills in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Cyan has a high chroma and so really stands out against black and white.

Canalconnection in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Another website with a high chroma blue, though it includes some tints and shades with somewhat lower chromas.

Philippdoms in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Combining high and low saturation in the same hue can make for a sophisticated and elegant design.

Fruehjahr in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Colors with very high chroma are best used in moderation, as done here.

Panelfly in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Differences in chroma can make for a visually pleasing gradient.

Saturation

Saturation refers to how a hue appears under particular lighting conditions. Think of saturation in terms of weak vs. strong or pale vs. pure hues.

In design, colors with similar saturation levels make for more cohesive-looking designs. As with chroma, colors with similar but not identical saturations can have a jarring effect on visitors.

Examples

Sifrvault in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
The saturation levels of many of the different hues used here are similar, adding a sense of unity to the overall design.

Rainbeaumars in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Combining colors with similar muted saturation levels creates a soft design, which is emphasized by the watercolor effects.

Disfrutasanjuan in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Hues with lower saturation levels aren’t necessarily lighter, as shown here.

Craftsale in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
An excellent example of how using a hue with a high saturation against a background with low saturation can make the former really stand out.

Sunrisesoya in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Aother example of how low saturation colors make nearby high saturation colors really stand out.

Value

Value could also be called “lightness.” It refers to how light or dark a color is. Ligher colors have higher values. For example, orange has a higher value than navy blue or dark purple. Black has the lowest value of any hue, and white the highest.

When applying color values to your designs, favor colors with different values, especially ones with high chroma. High contrast values generally result in more aesthetically pleasing designs.

Examples

Creativespark in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
The high value of the yellow used here really stands out against the lower-value black and gray.

Oysterdesign in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
This website combines blue hues with two different values. Because the different values have enough contrast, the overall look is visually appealing.

Copimaj in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Combining colors with similar values makes for an energetic and lively background (which is enhanced by the design itself).

Whoseview in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
The red here has a lower value than the light blue, which itself has a lower value than the white.

Colourpixel in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
The human eye can pick up differences in value even among such similar hues.

Tones

Tones are created when gray is added to a hue. Tones are generally duller or softer-looking than pure hues.

Tones are sometimes easier to use in designs. Tones with more gray can lend a certain vintage feel to websites. Depending on the hues, they can also add a sophisticated or elegant look.

Examples

Lakesideheritage in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Tones can give websites a sophisticated look while adding some vintage and antique flair.

Brightkite in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
This website combines blues in a variety of tones, shades and tints.

Mmuller in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Tones can be intensified by adding gray around them, as done here.

Redvelvetart in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
The tones used in the navigation and background design here give this website a vintage, hand-made feel.

Mergeweb in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
A great example of how a pure hue can really stand out against a background of tones.

Metalab in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Some colors that we might consider gray are actually tones of other colors. In this case, the background is a blue tone but with a lot of gray added.

Shades

A shade is created when black is added to a hue, making it darker. The word is often incorrectly used to describe tint or tone, but shade only applies to hues made darker by the addition of black.

In design, very dark shades are sometimes used instead of black and can serve as neutrals. Combining shades with tints is best to avoid too dark and heavy a look.

Examples

Jonathanmoore in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Jonathan Moore’s website has a variety of different shades of purple in the background (and a couple of tints in other parts).

Vuumedia in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Using different shades together works well, as long as sufficient contrast between them is maintained.

Alilot in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
An effective combination of shades and tints, particularly in the header.

Skipvine in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Another background design that has shades (and a few tints) in a textured gradient.

Stuffandnonsense in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Combining shades within textures adds interest to this website.

Tints

A tint is formed when white is added to a hue, lightening it. Very light tints are sometimes called pastels, but any pure hue with white added to it is a tint.

Tints are often used to create feminine or lighter designs. Pastel tints are especially used to make designs more feminine. They also work well in vintage designs and are popular on websites targeted at parents of babies and toddlers.

Examples

Caiocardoso in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Caio Cardoso’s website has a variety of green tints in the background and in other elements.

Fernandosilanes1 in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
The blue tint on Fernando Silanes’s website creates a soft and sophisticated look.

Duboutdesyeux in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Blue tints are popular for sky and nature motifs.

Smallwhitebear in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Tints are also popular in watercolor-based designs.

Iamgarth in Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Terminology
Tints combined together make for a sophisticated gradient.

Conclusion

While you don’t necessarily have to remember all of these technical terms, you should be familiar with the actual concepts, especially if you want to master part 3 of this series (in which we create our own color schemes). To that end, here’s a cheat sheet to jog your memory:

  • Hue is color (blue, green, red, etc.).
  • Chroma is the purity of a color (a high chroma has no added black, white or gray).
  • Saturation refers to how strong or weak a color is (high saturation being strong).
  • Value refers to how light or dark a color is (light having a high value).
  • Tones are created by adding gray to a color, making it duller than the original.
  • Shades are created by adding black to a color, making it darker than the original.
  • Tints are created by adding white to a color, making it lighter than the original.

Further Resources

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Cameron ChapmanCameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of Internet Famous: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Online Celebrity.

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