Colours, including black and white, can be used effectively to make every piece of graphic design and illustration come alive. However, situations may also arise when exercising too much creativity with colours does not result in the desired outcome. Our eyes are naturally drawn to certain combinations of colours, and thankfully, there are some specific rules to help you select the most aesthetically pleasing palette for your piece.


Do Start with the Basics

The primary colours — red, yellow, and blue — are a great starting point from which to draw inspiration. Not only are they striking on their own, but they also mix to create secondary colours — orange, violet, and green. On graphic design software, such as Photoshop or InDesign, colours are presented on a colour wheel or strip. These show gradients of colours merging between three spokes representing the primary colours, producing countless shades. In most programs, the colour wheel or strip can be brought up by clicking on the “colour picker” button.


When choosing a colour palette, remember the rules of the colour wheel:

  • Monochromatic colours are lighter and darker shades of the same colour and look great together. For example, light blue, cerulean, and navy blue make up a monochromatic blue palette.
  • Analogous colours are those that line up next to each other in threes on the colour wheel. A typical example is red, orange, and red-orange. Since these colours share the same undertone, they tend to suit one another.
  • Complementary colours are those that are situated on the opposite sides of the wheel. As their name indicates, these colours complement each other well.


Do Use Contrasts

Sometimes, experimenting with colours can result in amazing contrasts that make a design look more striking. However, colours can be contrasted in a number of ways, and it is important to know how to do it properly.


  • You can contrast lighter shades with darker shades of the same colour. For example, the background of a poster can be a dark shade of blue while some text uses a much lighter shade of blue.
  • Hues can also be contrasted between two objects in a design to evoke a desired feeling or texture. Contrasting complimentary colors, such as red and green, can produce an evocative image.
  • Colours are typically grouped into warm, cool, or neutral “temperatures.” Contrasting a warm colour — such as orange — with a cool colour — such as blue— can result in something dramatic and eye-catching.
  • Saturation, which determines a colour’s intensity, can provide depth or dullness. Experiment with saturation by contrasting bright colours with muted ones will help make your piece shine.


Do Create New Trends

Choosing colours to match the theme, mood, and tone of a project is important. In advertising, there are industry-accepted colours used to attract certain audiences. For example, a bright red background would not go over well on a pamphlet for a retirement home since red is linked to aggressiveness, whereas a royal blue and white colour scheme would appeal to seniors because blue and white are associated with professionalism and a sense of calm.


However, this does not mean that the use of colours is a practice set in stone. You can certainly experiment with hues, saturation, and complimentary colours to create new, expressive trends. One recent trend that has thrived is the use of bold and bright colours. Spotify, the music app, uses such bold colours in their album cover graphics. These colours have proven to attract a young audience.


Don’t Forget that Colours Can Seem to Change

The emotions represented by colours are subjective depending on the person who views them. However, the way colours look is also relative to their surroundings. A colour will appear duller or brighter, warmer or colder, distinct or blended, depending on the colour that surrounds it. Primary colours often look the same when surrounded by another colour. However, secondary colours, such as violet and orange, can appear differently to our eyes based on the colour next to it.


Colours can also appear differently according to the shape that it fills. Here are a few tips:

  • Outlining a shape with a dark border will make the colour inside the shape look lighter.
  • Two shades of the same colour, when placed together, will make the lighter shade look lighter and the darker shade look even darker.


Don’t Underestimate Blank Space

Blank space, especially if it is white space, can be advantageous in a design. A design doesn’t need to be crowded with material and colour. White space, otherwise known as negative space, helps in

  • Legibility of text
  • Comprehension of the overall design
  • Drawing attention to a detail to emphasize its importance, creating the same effect as making a text bold in order to distinguish it from surrounding words

If text is included in the design, then breaking the text with white space allows the reader to grasp the information more easily. If there are symbols or images, white space helps the viewer take in their size, shape, and relevance to the whole piece.

Don’t Begin a Project with Your First Choice of Colour

Perception of colours can be highly subjective. This is true for clients as well. When deciding a colour scheme for a client’s project, it is important to gather information of what the client prefers, which industry the design is for, and the emotional reactions of audiences in the industry. You may also need to consider if the colours you want are available for production. Depending on the audience, industry, and mass production of the design, a colour palette that appeals to a wide audience is safer than one that targets one type of audience.

In this situation, a graphic designer’s creativity may seem limited, but the client’s approval is essential. It is better to first take into consideration the client’s requirements before tweaking the colour scheme to produce a result that is above the client’s expectation.