Using Color in Graphic Design

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you have a favorite color? Color is a very powerful tool for conveying messages and creating moods. In this lesson, explore ways to use color in graphic design.

What Is Graphic Design?

We live in a world full of images and messages. They're on the products we buy and on familiar company logos all around us like McDonalds and Coca-Cola. These products are made more effective (and we might buy more of them) because of graphic design.

Graphic design, sometimes also called visual communication, is the art and skill of combining words and pictures to convey ideas and experiences. It's done by people called graphic designers, trained professionals with backgrounds in art who know how to use elements like color, shape, line and text to create effective messages for a variety of print and digital media. Graphic design is also important in branding, the creation of logos and other effective connections between consumers (like us) and trusted products so we'll continue buying those products.

Graphic design combines images and words to convey ideas. This is a page from a British magazine
Graphic design

While graphic design uses many elements, one of the most powerful is color. In our age of many distractions, color still captures our senses and our attention. Let's learn more about how color is used in graphic design and what possible messages some colors convey.

Using Color in Graphic Design

Color conveys messages and can create a sense of emotion or mood. The mood can vary depending on different color combinations. But how do designers know what to use?

Over time, people have done many studies of color. This information is called color theory, the understanding of how colors relate to one another and how we see them. As a result, colors have lots of psychology associated with them. Graphic designers learn about color theory, and they use it in their work.

Another helpful tool for designers is the color wheel, which shows the colors in relation to each other. The color wheel usually includes 12 hues. A hue is a basic color without it being darkened or lightened. The hues include the primary colors of red, blue and yellow; the secondary colors of orange, green and purple (made by mixing the primary colors); and the tertiary colors, made by mixing primary and secondary colors. When these colors are used in combinations, different effects can be created.

The color wheel shows colors in relation to one another
color wheel

Graphic designers also need to know how to use and balance color combinations. Often, designs will only include two or three colors, because too many can create confusion and muddy a message. Color also has different meanings in different cultures, so designers need to be aware of where their work will be seen. The key is understanding the message to be conveyed and choosing the colors that will best achieve it.

Colors and Meanings

While everyone reacts to color in different ways, colors tend to have general characteristics that connect them to ideas and traits. Warm colors, like red, yellow and orange, are seen to be active, while cool colors like green and blue are viewed as calm and more passive. Graphic designers know these characteristics and use them in their work. Let's explore a few colors and potential messages.

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