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Understanding Color as a Designer and How to Use It

November 12, 2021
April 29, 2023

Understanding Color as a Designer and How to Use It

Red Shark Digital

Color Terms Explained

We spent the entire month of January curating top notch color carousels for our instagram audience. And we know more than anyone else how important colors can be when creating things such as social media graphics, brand collateral, and other assets on the daily. So why not compile it all into one easy to follow booklet? We’ll be breaking down the majority of these posts in this blog, as well as attaching a link to download the guide. So sit back, relax, and prepare for a whirlwind of color facts, theories, questions and more!

Download our Free Color Facts Study Guide

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Color Theory:

To start this whole thing off let’s jump into understanding color theory. The name itself can be daunting but remember, it’s only as complicated as you make it! A few key vocabulary words to know to make this resource easier to understand are:

  • Hue: designer lingo for the actual color
  • Value: how light or dark a color is
  • Shade: the addition of black to a color
  • Tone: the addition of grey to a color
  • Tint: the addition of white to a color.

Black, grey, and white are considered true neutral colors. Brown, tan and their derivatives are referred to as near-neutrals. Now that you’re familiar with a bit of the vocabulary, we can begin talking about the almighty and honorable color wheel! Within the color wheel you’ll find the primary colors red, yellow, and blue. All other colors are made with just these first three. Next we have the secondary colors, orange, green, and violet. These three are made by mixing equal amounts of primary colors together. For example, mixing equal parts red with equal parts yellow gives you orange. Now for the tertiary colors, which are all colors that can be created by mixing varying amounts of one primary color with its adjacent secondary color. The fluctuating values of each added results in the hues between colors.

Understanding Hues:

Now that you’ve got a decent understanding of the color wheel, we can challenge a bit of your vocabulary knowledge. What’s the difference between a color and a hue? The words can be used interchangeably, but there is a difference, believe it or not! All hues are colors, but not all colors are hues. For example, white, black and grey are colors but not considered hues. A hue is defined as a pure pigment, or any color before black or white is added to it. There are six pure pigments on the color wheel - which are the primary and secondary colors. Here’s a fun fact about hues, monochromatic color schemes are just variations of a single hue.

Tints Simplified:

Moving on from hues let’s talk about tints. The purpose of a tint is to lessen the darkness of a color. With that being said, a tint is achieved by mixing a pure color (or combination of pure colors) with white ONLY. For example, if you mix blue with white you’ll naturally get a softer, light blue. So in this instance, the light blue is a tint of the original blue color. It’s important to note that adding white to lighten a color DOES NOT brighten the color as well. Although your new tint may look brighter on screen, in reality it is not. An easy way to remember this is to think of your tint as just a more pale version of the original color. The smallest amount of white can turn a pure color into a tint. One tint of a color can feature a wide range of lightness. Lastly, a true tint of a pure color will contain no amounts of grey within itself.

Explaining Shades:

Shades impact the overall relative lightness of a color compared to. Therefore a shade is mixed with only black and pure colors. Absolutely zero grey or white. For example, if you mix green with black you’ll naturally get a sharp, dark green. So in this instance, the dark green is a shade of the original blue. Adding black to a color varies the overall darkness of the color. An easy way to remember shades is to think of your shade as just a more dark version of your original color. The smallest amount of black can turn a pure color into a shade. One shade of a color can feature a wide range of darkness. Finally, shades can be identified as rich, intense, and much darker colors.

Types of Palettes:

All color palettes are made from the color wheel, obviously. But what are the different types?  Monochromatic palettes are variations of the same hue, using different shades and tints. Analogous palettes use colors next to each other on the color wheel. Complementary color palettes are made up of colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. Split complementary color palettes use two sets of two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. Tetradic complementary color palettes are two sets of complementary colors.


These two terms are more than just acronyms! They determine the color space of your next project. One color space will always be better than the other. But that all depends on how or where the final product of your project will be displayed.

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. This color space is used for digital images. If you’re designing something that will be viewed on screens, such as graphics for your social media profile make sure your color space is set to RGB. Screens, like the one you are using to read this, create colors by mixing red, green, and blue while varying their intensities. This is known as additive mixing. Where all colors begin as black, while red, green, and blue light is added on top of one another to brighten and create perfect colors.

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black). This color space is used for printed materials. If you’re designing something that will be printed, such as posters or business cards, make sure your color space is set to CMYK. Printers like the ones we have in our office create color by combining CMYK values of ink. This is known as subtractive mixing. Where all colors start as white, while each layer of ink reduces the initial brightness to create the colors you’ve selected in your document.

Cool vs Warm Colors:

The cool and warm color concept has been around for hundreds of years. But what does it mean? Most theories start with the simple six point color wheel, or three primary colors and three secondary colors. The invisible line that divides the groups into warm and cool colors breaks them down as such:

  • Warm Colors: Red, Orange, Yellow
  • Cool Colors: Green, Blue, Magenta

Warm colors evoke warmth because they tend to remind us of things like the sun or fire. While cool colors evoke colder feelings by reminding us of things like water and grass. Both colors can affect your perception of depth as well. This is based on the fact that the human eye adjusts when focusing on colors of different wavelengths.

The Origin of the Color Wheel:

Artists invented the first pigments nearly 40,000 years ago! By using a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk. This in turn created the first basic color palette. Which consisted of red, yellow, brown, black and white. New pigments developed as some of history’s greatest art movements experimented with new colors in their work. Such as the Renaissance, and Impressionism. Sir Isaac Newton invented the first color wheel while studying white light and reflections off prisms. He noticed that light reflected a full spectrum of colors. After writing down the different hues he saw, he then began to look for a harmonious relationship between them all. He even went as far as corresponding every hue with its own musical note. Once they were organized to his liking he then arranged the colors onto a rotating disk to see how they react to each other visually. Upon spinning the color wheel Isaac found that all that could be seen to the human eye was pure white.

For all of this information and more download our complete 140+ page Color Study PDF. Within the booklet we touch on some of the most asked color questions and even highlight ten of our favorite free online color resources! Check us out on social media as well, our handle is @redsharkdigital on all platforms including TikTok!

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