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Use of Color Theory in Interior Design

Amy Fusco, Morgan Donohue
  • Author
    Amy Fusco

    Amy Fusco has taught Middle School and High School, English, Yearbook, and AVID for over five years. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature from USF St Pete and is a fully certified Florida teacher. She is also certified in teaching English as a Second English. Amy believes that strong reading and writing skills create critical thinkers and can open doors to new opportunities for children and adults alike. Her passion is sharing her knowledge of reading, writing, organization and study skills with others.

  • Instructor
    Morgan Donohue

    Morgan has taught interior design, LEED certification, and Literature. She has a Bachelors degree in Interior Design and a Master's degree in English and Creative Writing.

Learn about color theory and understand how it impacts interior design. Explore examples of color combinations in interior design and study the color wheel. Updated: 08/05/2022

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What is Color Theory?

Most people learn the colors as young children, yet not many are ever taught about how those colors can actually affect a person's life and mood. The effect colors have on people has been scientifically studied and proven, and this is central to what color theory is. Explained most simply, color theory is the art and science of using color. This theory explains how humans perceive color (both physically and psychologically) and how colors mix, match, and contrast with one another.

There is actually a lot of use for understanding what colors go well together and how people perceive colors. In the fields of computer graphics, marketing, business ownership, and interior design, color theory is studied and used to help catch the customer's eyes, make websites easier to navigate, make people feel warm and welcome in a business, and create beautiful living spaces that inspire positive moods. Using the right combination of colors can have a huge effect on a space, and this is why color theory is a key component of interior design.

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Interior Design and the Color Wheel

The color wheel is actually an essential part of interior design, and first determining the colors to use is the basis of all other parts of the design. The creation of the color wheel dates back to Sir Isaac Newton who first noted he could use a triangular prism to split a beam of white into a rainbow, proving that light is composed of a spectrum of hues. He recorded all the hues of color in a rainbow and decided to create a circle by connecting the opposite ends of the spectrum red and violet. However, not only did he create this wheel of color, but Newton was the first one to philosophize those colors shared harmonious relationships with one another. Since, then multiple scientists, design companies, and computer graphics companies like Adobe have expanded and created various versions of the color wheel. These modern versions explore how many colors can be created from the primary colors and display clearly how the colors look when matched together.

This is where the color wheel meets interior design because the designer also needs tangible tools to help them choose color schemes and share their vision with their clients. The color wheel is a tangible tool to help play with different ideas of color matches to use as themes for the design. Using the wheel to find color matches that work and create the right look and mood for a space is an art called complementary color scheme or complimentary interior design. A complementary design is created by using two colors opposite each other on the color wheel. This is the most contrasting of all color schemes which attracts the most attention and one of the main challenges when working with it is to achieve a harmonious balance. The color wheel helps the designer see how the colors will look paired together and what feeling the colors together create.


A color wheel can help designers see what colors coordinate.

A wheel showing a range of colors, from yellow to orange, red, pink, purple, blue and green


Color Combinations

The creation of logical combinations of colors from the color wheel is known as a color scheme. The main idea behind the interior design color scheme is finding complementary colors from the wheel to create a plan for what will be the main color of a space and a complimenting accent color to use throughout the room as well. These chosen color combinations by the interior designer are the foundation of color schemes. The way a designer identifies complimenting colors is that these colors are located across from each other on the color wheel. Since the creation of the original color wheel there have been many more colors created, named, and added. The types of colors existing today are primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors, and complementary colors. There are also different types of color schemes, but one of the most important is the monochromatic color scheme. All of these colors and schemes are defined below.

Primary Colors

  • Red, yellow and blue are the primary colors because they form the foundation for all other colors.

Secondary Colors

  • These colors are created by the combination of two primary colors and are green, purple, and red-orange.

Tertiary Colors

  • These colors are created by combing a secondary and primary color or primary colors in a ratio of 2:1. Examples are, yellow-orange, blue-green, and yellow-green.

Complementary Colors

  • These colors are ascetically pleasing together and are located across from each other on the color wheel. Upon mixing two of these colors, the result will be a muddy brown color.

Monochromatic Color Scheme

  • A variety of tones out of the same hue create a single or monochromatic scheme.

Color Psychology

The color wheel may be the basis of color theory, but the second and equally important component of this theory is the psychology behind colors and how they make people feel. Essentially, color psychology is the study of how colors impact people's emotions and thoughts. Psychologists, marketing experts, and interior designers all study this theory around colors to better understand what possible effect chosen color schemes can have on human emotion.

This idea that colors impact human emotion is not new and dates back to ancient cultures. Several ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese, practiced chromotherapy, or the use of colors to heal. Chromotherapy is sometimes referred to as light therapy or colorology. Colorology is still used today as a holistic or alternative treatment. Color psychology and chromotherapy alike apply certain moods and emotions to specific colors. For example, the many hues of blues are said to be calming colors. Therefore, many interior designers think that rooms where one seeks relaxation like bedrooms and bathrooms are more adept for such calming colors as blues, whites, and soft purples.

Another important term to understand concerning color psychology and emotions ascribed to certain colors is color temperature. When talking about color in design, the terms warm and cool refers to the mood and feelings produced by a particular color. For example, experiences with blue include water, wind, and ice. Orange reminds people of the warmth of the sun, fire, and lava. The temperature associated with each color is universally accepted because it matches real-life experiences with different colors.

Examples of color temperature in design are that colors in the red area of the color spectrum are known as warm colors and include red, orange, and yellow. These warm colors evoke emotions ranging from feelings of warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility. The brighter reds are seen as power and even hostile colors if they are overused, while softer shades of red and orange can be warm and welcoming.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is color theory and why is it important?

Color theory is the study of the art and science of colors. It combines the use of the color wheel and an understanding of color psychology.

How do interior designers choose colors?

Interior designers choose colors based on the color wheel. They can find complementary colors from the wheel or multiple hues of a color.

What are the most popular colors for interior design?

The most popular colors for interior design can be found on the color wheel, and usually these would be complementary colors. Specific colors that are popular right now are robin's egg blue, hues of red, yellow and orange.

What colors go together in interior design?

The colors that go together in interior design are called complementary colors. They are located across from each other on the color wheel.

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