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Color Theory For Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Color Terminology

Quick Summary

If you’re going to use color effectively in your designs, you’ll need to know a few color concepts, as well as color theory terminology. A thorough working knowledge of concepts like chroma, value, and saturation is key to creating your own awesome color palettes (which we’ll get to in Part 3). [Content Update: August 2017]

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In Part 1: The Meaning of Color of this color theory series, we covered the meanings of different colors. Here, we’ll go over the basics of what affects a given color, such as adding gray, white, or black to the pure hue, and its effect on a design (with examples).

Table of Contents

If you’re going to use color effectively in your designs, you’ll need to know a few color concepts, as well as color theory terminology. A thorough working knowledge of concepts like chroma, value, and saturation is key to creating your own awesome color palettes (which we’ll get to in Part 3). [Content Update: August 2017]

In Part 1: The Meaning of Color of this color theory series, we covered the meanings of different colors. Here, we’ll go over the basics of what affects a given color, such as adding gray, white, or black to the pure hue, and its effect on a design (with examples).

How To Create Your Own Color Schemes

Let’s talk about creating your own color schemes, from scratch, covering the traditional color scheme patterns (monochrome, analogous, complementary, etc.), and others. Read a related article →

Hue

Hue is the most basic of color terms and denotes an object’s color. When we say “blue,” “green,” or “red,” we’re talking about hue. The hues you use in your designs convey important messages to your website’s visitors. Read Part 1 of this series for the meanings conveyed by various hues.

Examples

Small Victories
Using a lot of pure hues together can add a fun and playful look to a design, as done in the design of this website.
Franky Rizzardo
Pure red is a very popular hue in Web design. This site also incorporates other pure hues as the main photo changes.
Head Offfice
HeadOfffice uses such a bright pure yellow hue that it’s almost difficult to look at.

Chroma

Chroma refers to the purity of a color. A hue with high chroma has no black, white, or gray added to it. Conversely, adding white, black, or gray reduces its chroma. It’s similar to saturation but not quite the same. Chroma can be thought of as the brightness of a color in comparison to white.

In design, avoid using hues that have a similar (but not identical) chroma. Opt instead for hues with chromas that are either exactly the same or at least a few steps away from each other.

Examples

Neobi
Combining a variety of hues with the same chroma creates a harmonious background pattern.
The difference in chroma between the pink and dark purple on this site provides solid contrast in the design.
Mr Marcel School
The low chroma colors in this design contrast nicely against the black typography.

Saturation

Saturation refers to how a hue appears under particular lighting conditions. Think of saturation in terms of weak vs. strong or pale vs. pure hues.

In design, colors with similar saturation levels make for more cohesive-looking designs. As with chroma, colors with similar but not identical saturations can have a jarring effect on visitors.

Examples

Nuage App
The slightly paler saturation of the letters in the header on this site create a more calming feel than pure hues would.
Cirq
The more saturated red accent color on this site really stands out against the black and tan colors, which are both less saturated.
Name Of Love
Warm, less saturated hues like the ones found on this site give a decidedly feminine feel to the design.

Value

Value could also be called “lightness.” It refers to how light or dark a color is. Lighter colors have higher values. For example, orange has a higher value than navy blue or dark purple. Black has the lowest value of any hue, and white the highest.

When applying color values to your designs, favor colors with different values, especially ones with high chroma. High contrast values generally result in more aesthetically pleasing designs.

Examples

2026
The high value of the yellow used here really stands out against the lower-value black and even higher value white.
Workine
Here’s another site that combines a mid-range hue with a high-value and low-value hue to create a very modern look and feel.
Waaark
The Waaark site combines hues with a variety of values to create a very harmonious design.

Tones

Tones are created when gray is added to a hue. Tones are generally duller or softer-looking than pure hues.

Tones are sometimes easier to use in designs. More gray can lend a certain vintage feel to websites. Depending on the hues, they can also add a sophisticated or elegant look.

Examples

Line Motion
Purple takes on a twilight quality when gray is added.
Vrge
This website combines blues in a variety of tones, shades and tints.
Flock Knitwear
Pink becomes dusty rose as a tone.

Shades

A shade is created when black is added to a hue, making it darker. The word is often incorrectly used to describe tint or tone, but technically shade only applies to hues made darker by the addition of black.

In design, very dark shades are sometimes used instead of black and can serve as neutrals. Combining shades with tints or lighter neutrals is best to avoid too dark and heavy a look.

Examples

Joni Korpi
Joni Korpi’s website has a variety of different shades of purple in the background (and a couple of tints in other parts).
Walvis
Shades of blue and yellow combine to create a nautical-themed design.
Revolution Messaging
Navy blue and dark red are commonly used shades in political designs.

Tints

A tint is formed when white is added to a hue, lightening it. Very light tints are sometimes called pastels, but any pure hue with white added to it is technically a tint, even if the color is still quite bright.

Tints are often used to create feminine or lighter designs. Pastel tints are especially used to make designs more feminine, though there are plenty of instances of other pastel sites with a more masculine or gender-neutral look. They also work well in vintage designs and are popular on websites targeted at parents of babies and toddlers.

Examples

Nurture Digital
Here’s an example of a tint that’s still quite bright and vibrant.
Timedropper
The light blue tint combined with the more subtle yellow tint on the Timedropper plugin website creates a soft and fun look.
Make My Lemonade
Pink is a tint of red, and the two different versions of it here work beautifully together.

Conclusion

While you don’t necessarily have to remember all of these technical terms, you should be familiar with the actual concepts, especially if you want to master part 3 of this series (in which we create our own color schemes). To that end, here’s a cheat sheet to jog your memory:

  • Hue is color (blue, green, red, etc.).
  • Chroma is the purity of a color (a high chroma has no added black, white or gray).
  • Saturation refers to how strong or weak a color is (high saturation being strong).
  • Value refers to how light or dark a color is (light having a high value).
  • Tones are created by adding gray to a color, making it duller than the original.
  • Shades are created by adding black to a color, making it darker than the original.
  • Tints are created by adding white to a color, making it lighter than the original.

Further Resources

The Whole Series