Colour theory: an essential guide to colour harmony

Now that you have your dominant colour or colours from STEP 1, it’s time to understand colour harmony - how colours interact on the colour wheel to create balance or unity.


The colour wheel: how does it work?

The colour wheel is the arrangement of colours in a circle according to the temperature of the colour - on the diagram below, you can see 'cool colours' to the left and 'warm colours' to the right. It also depicts primary, secondary and tertiary colours arranged in a sequence as well as different depths of 'chroma' which refers to how intense a colour is, how much white (tint), black (shade) or grey (tone) is added to it.


A dynamic colour palette is one which complements your brand values (as established in STEP 1) and includes enough tints, tones and shades of various colours to create harmony and balance as well as impact. The colour wheel is a brilliant resource to help you see how colours interact but there are also predefined 'traditional' colour schemes that you can base your choices on.

These include, but aren't limited to:

monochromatic | analogous | complementary | split complementary | triadic

Let's have a look of each of these in turn...



This type of scheme is often misinterpreted as just black and white, but a monochromatic (one colour) colour scheme is simply created from using different shades, tones and tints of one single colour.


Contrast is created through the use of light and dark shades, tints and tones of the base colour but be careful it doesn’t appear to be washed out due to lack of ‘colour pop’. These colour palettes can be very dramatic if using black against white however in general they are considered soft, subtle and minimalistic. Great for creating a 'clean, modern and cool' look but could also come across as 'aloof' so avoid this type of scheme if you're trying to create a warm and friendly feeling.


An analogous colour palette involves colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel e.g. pink, red and orange. Due to the position of the colours on the colour wheel the colours are related - a family of colours - and often include all warm colours or all cool colours. Analogous colours create a pleasing, relaxed palette. Play around with light on dark and use the lightest or darkest hue of your base colour with the lightest or darkest hue of the sequential colours to create contrast within your designs. For example, the light pink below would create a nice contrast against a brighter pink or deeper orange/red.


complementary (duotone)

The colours in this palette sit opposite each other on the colour wheel and most commonly includes one primary colour (red, yellow or blue) with one secondary colour (green, purple or orange). Because of their positioning on the wheel complementary colour schemes often include both warm and cool colours within the same palette. For a contemporary take on this scheme choose subdued variations of the pure hues e.g. a burnt orange or peach instead of bright orange paired with a soft light blue or darker midnight blue. Also adding in neutrals such as a mushroom or cream/beige can help calm things down.

Considered the most high contrast and dramatic colour combinations they are great for creating an energetic and vibrant effect. They can however be difficult to apply harmoniously across a design though so if you're having problems try a split complementary palette instead (see below).


split complementary

If you’re having problems applying a complementary colour palette, try a split-complementary scheme instead; which is any colour on the colour wheel plus the two that flank either side of its complementary colour. This is an easier palette to handle as is less jarring and intense than a true complementary colour scheme but still creates strong visual contrast. It's also clearer which colours will become your dominant, accent and neutral colours so easier to handle when it comes to applying your colour scheme to your designs.



One of the most commonly applied and easier to use colour palettes. These colour schemes consist of any three colours that are evenly spaced on the colour wheel creating a triangle relationship. Typically one colour will be your dominant base, the second colour is there to support and the third colour used as an accent or colour pop, used to gain attention. Try the 60-30-10 rule as used in interior and fashion design to apply these colours harmoniously in your design which uses three colours in varying degrees - 60% dominant colour, 30% secondary colour and 10% accent colour. If you want to add any more colours split the secondary or dominant colour percentage but never the accent.


So now it's your turn...

Using your dominant colour or an image that includes your chosen colour upload it to Adobe Color CC and start to play around with the colour wheel by choosing colours adjacent, opposite or evenly spaced across the colour wheel and see what type of effect they create. Ask yourself if you like the colour combinations you're picking? Is is pleasing to the eye or is it jarring and something a miss? If so try a lighter or darker shade of the same colour to see if this has a better effect. If not then ditch the colour and try applying a different colour harmony rule e.g. if the complementary colour isn't working then try one that is flanked either side, left or right. You can also use the Adobe Color presents such as 'colourful, muted, dark etc' which is a great way of matching up with the emotive effect of your brand values. Remember also to play around with the chroma of each colour - choosing a lighter tones and a darker shades - to create enough variation of light, medium and dark hues within your colour palette.

Which type of colour palette do you use for your brand?