Color Wheels: Why They’re Essential in Design

color wheel

Color Wheels: Why They’re Essential in Design


The color wheel is an essential part of anything relating to graphics, design, and colors. Although coloring is easy to do, it is very hard to do well. The very act of coloring is in itself very enjoyable, a fact learnt early on in kindergarten with finger painting and crayons. However, there’s a huge difference between painting a pre-drawn picture of a hippo with Crayola to utilizing colors effectively in a professional design project. How colors relate to each other in design, how they are supposed to be used, and even what shade of color is most appropriate can all be determined through proper study and use of the color wheel.

This article will take a little time to walk you through the basics of color wheel theory, and hopefully provide you with the beginnings of an understanding of how color can best be used. In order to gain a full appreciation of it, a two or three-year course in graphic design or art would probably be more essential, but this will do to give you a quick leg up. After which, you can learn through various other sources, or through your own trial and error.

What is the Color Wheel?

If you ever did art in high school, you probably remember being shown a chart in which various different colors are arrayed together in a sort of segmented circle. This chart showed primary colors and the secondary colors that can be derived from them. Yellow and blue make green, for example, while yellow and red make orange. This is one of the very basic concepts behind the color wheel – how different colors interact with and complement each other.

The color wheel is a visual representation of that theory, and is used to demonstrate visually how different pigments might look when combined. Designers frequently use the color wheel when planning out their designs, using them to get a better idea of how the colors within it will work against each other.

Why is the Color Wheel So Essential?

Simply put, using colors correctly requires knowing how colors behave when used, and more importantly when placed against each other. A lot of this relies on contrast, or how well two colors can distinguish themselves from each other. For example, a very popular use of contrast is black on white, or white on black. The eye can easily distinguish between the two tones and, as a result, the combination is easy to look at. Meanwhile colors too similar to each other in pigment, such as yellow on orange, are harder to make out and cause more discomfort for those looking at it.

It is pretty much the bane of aesthetics to create images that people are not comfortable looking at, so it is essential you create harmony in your color design as much as possible.

One thing you’ll notice about the color wheel is the way the colors are positioned. That is not arbitrary or accidental. The colors actually correspond with which colors best complement each other, as well as showing potential secondary and tertiary colors. Using these colors together draw the best visual effect and generate the best reaction from your design.

Finding Complementary Colors

There are two ways you can find colors that best work with each other.
The first way is simply to draw a line from the color directly across the wheel to its opposite. Those colors contrast with each other exceedingly well. A common misconception with the color blue is that it goes best with red. However, examining the color wheel quickly shows that this is not true. The best color to use with blue is actually orange, and this can be seen elsewhere. How many movie posters have you seen that contrast blues with oranges? This color blending is actually fairly common.

The second way is this: draw a triangle, with each angle touching one color. All those colors complement each other very well too. The triangle must have completely equal angles in order for it to work, but the results mean that you can quickly develop a quick color scheme in which you know all the colors will work together splendidly.

Color Wheels and You

Hopefully through this article we have learned what color wheels are, why they are important to your design projects, and how you can best work it into your own design projects. This only a brief introduction, however. If you really want to start using color wheels even more effectively, there are a wide number of books, articles and courses available on the topic. However, we hope, through this guide, you at least have a strong foundation to build on towards that end.