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

If you’re going to use color effectively in your designs, you’ll need to know some color concepts and color theory terminology. A thorough working knowledge of concepts like chroma, value and saturation is key to creating your own awesome color schemes. In Part 1: The Meaning of Color1 of our 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 of course.

Hue Link

Hue2 is the most basic of color terms and basically 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 article for the meanings conveyed by various hues.

Examples Link

The primary hue of the background and some of the typography on the Happy Twitmas website is bright red.

Using a lot of pure hues together can add a fun and playful look to a design, as done in the header and elsewhere on this website.

Pure red is a very popular hue in Web design.

Mix uses a number of pure hues in its header and logo.

Green in its purer forms is seen less often and so stands out more than some other colors.

Chroma Link

Chroma8 refers to the purity of a color. A hue with high chroma has no black, white or gray in it. 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 very similar chroma. Opt instead for hues with chromas that are the same or a few steps away from each other.

Examples Link

Cyan has a high chroma and so really stands out against black and white.

Another website with a high chroma blue, though it includes some tints and shades with somewhat lower chromas.

Combining high and low saturation in the same hue can make for a sophisticated and elegant design.

Colors with very high chroma are best used in moderation, as done here.

Differences in chroma can make for a visually pleasing gradient.

Saturation Link

Saturation13 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 Link

The saturation levels of many of the different hues used here are similar, adding a sense of unity to the overall design.

Combining colors with similar muted saturation levels creates a soft design, which is emphasized by the watercolor effects.

Hues with lower saturation levels aren’t necessarily lighter, as shown here.

An excellent example of how using a hue with a high saturation against a background with low saturation can make the former really stand out.

Aother example of how low saturation colors make nearby high saturation colors really stand out.

Value Link

Value15 could also be called “lightness.” It refers to how light or dark a color is. Ligher 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 Link

The high value of the yellow used here really stands out against the lower-value black and gray.

This website combines blue hues with two different values. Because the different values have enough contrast, the overall look is visually appealing.

Combining colors with similar values makes for an energetic and lively background (which is enhanced by the design itself).

The red here has a lower value than the light blue, which itself has a lower value than the white.

The human eye can pick up differences in value even among such similar hues.

Tones Link

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. Tones with more gray can lend a certain vintage feel to websites. Depending on the hues, they can also add a sophisticated or elegant look.

Examples Link

Tones can give websites a sophisticated look while adding some vintage and antique flair.

This website combines blues in a variety of tones, shades and tints.

Tones can be intensified by adding gray around them, as done here.

The tones used in the navigation and background design here give this website a vintage, hand-made feel.

A great example of how a pure hue can really stand out against a background of tones.

Some colors that we might consider gray are actually tones of other colors. In this case, the background is a blue tone but with a lot of gray added.

Shades Link

A shade25 is created when black is added to a hue, making it darker. The word is often incorrectly used to describe tint or tone, but 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 is best to avoid too dark and heavy a look.

Examples Link

Jonathan Moore’s website has a variety of different shades of purple in the background (and a couple of tints in other parts).

Using different shades together works well, as long as sufficient contrast between them is maintained.

An effective combination of shades and tints, particularly in the header.

Another background design that has shades (and a few tints) in a textured gradient.

Combining shades within textures adds interest to this website.

Tints Link

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 a tint.

Tints are often used to create feminine or lighter designs. Pastel tints are especially used to make designs more feminine. They also work well in vintage designs and are popular on websites targeted at parents of babies and toddlers.

Examples Link

Caio Cardoso’s website has a variety of green tints in the background and in other elements.

The blue tint on Fernando Silanes’s website creates a soft and sophisticated look.

Blue tints are popular for sky and nature motifs.

Tints are also popular in watercolor-based designs.

Tints combined together make for a sophisticated gradient.

Conclusion Link

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 Link

The Whole Series Link


Footnotes Link

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Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of The Smashing Idea Book: From Inspiration to Application.

  1. 1

    Great article! Love this one more then part 1 to be honest :-).

    Will there be a part three? if yes, may I suggest the theory of contrasts and its effects? I think that’s one big aspect which makes a design work or not.

    Looking forward to more theory =)

  2. 2

    I was waiting for the Part 2..
    thanx a lot….

    Great collection of websites…
    now i redesign my websites…:)

  3. 3

    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge, both parts are great.
    I’m learning a lot with your blog and from the websites you put as examples.
    Keep posting ;)

  4. 4


    Part 1 was more common place on the web (and as some commented could actually make designers lives a bit more difficult when used as reference by clients), this one though takes it to the next level and show a clear understanding of all the factors involved :)

  5. 5

    Wow! Thanks a lot! I didn’t know about some of the terminology, shades, tints, tones. Now I know the difference. Thanks again!

  6. 6

    Excellent post, great web examples too. Good to know the specific terminology – now to teach that to students!

  7. 7

    like some of the examples… but most got a terrible fold…

  8. 8

    nice one

  9. 9

    Cameron you’re awesome!

    Thanks for the article. learn a lot : )


  10. 10

    Excellent article, and great examples. I also love some of the comments and suggestions counterbalancing the article.

  11. 11

    Thank you very much for featuring us. Made my day! :-D

  12. 12

    Thanks, thanks and thanks.

  13. 13

    First! Thanks for this summary!

  14. 14

    Faizan Qureshi

    February 2, 2010 6:30 am

    Wonderful recap on terms we often neglect to use.

    Cheers. :)

    • 15

      Actually, I usually start thinking about interesting details first, and then step back to envision a larger design that will incorporate those details. I agree that many people may start from a big picture and move to the details, but I think it’s just a matter of personal methods, rather than the way the human brain is wired.

  15. 16

    Although I have studied color theory, I still have doubts regarding it’s practicality. You said that one must be familiar with these concepts in order to develop an effective color scheme. This essentially means that the final color would be decided after tweaking with the elements which define a color, that is, hue, saturation,value etc. In other words, color theory follows an inside out approach to develop a color. However, this approach is in direct contradiction with the way in which human brain perceives information. Human brain, unlike a computer program, first visualizes the bigger picture and then gets into the details. For example, when designing a website, we already have a picture in our mind. We then use tools like Adobe Kuler to develop a color scheme which is related to the picture we envisioned. A person can easily develop a suitable color scheme without getting into the details of all the elements that define a color. This approach is exactly opposite to the inside out approach. Hence, color theory would be beneficial for a computer designing a website because a computer needs every bit of information to build the bigger picture. Humans have an organic approach when deciding on colors.
    Still, this series is indeed useful to know more about colors. Nice read! :)

    • 17

      Satish Gandham

      February 10, 2010 6:53 am

      I agree with you, practically it’s not possible for humans to take these principles into consideration while selecting colour scheme. However they can be used to tweak the colours once we have the basic website ready.

      Good read.

    • 18

      Stuart Rutter

      May 30, 2012 8:19 am

      There is also the question of Accessibility and colour blindness. I have just recently completed work on a site that supported a high-contrast view. This is a very imported aspect of colour selection. When trying to translate an original design into and accessible high-contrast version the original site design will be lost.

  16. 19

    @Adit: No matter how you decide upon a color scheme, knowing color theory will help you understand why you “feel” a certain way about a particular design. Thus, it gives you the power of understanding what’s really behind the perceptions some may find innate or organic. With that understanding comes the ability to adjust your color scheme accordingly to achieve a particular result.

    Just the way I see it!

    • 20

      Digressing from the graphics,

      I studied music composition for several years before moving into graphics. Similar deal, you study the works of Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and you learn the “rules” of composition. These rules came AFTER these works only from people studying the music to formalize the process. After you learn these rules you then proceed to break most of them but like above, it’s about the language you speak, and these rules to get the composition finished. Aside from that, the musical ornaments help to really shape the piece.
      As with anything, it’s the theory AND the practice that make a truly amazing work in any discipline.

      Good article in the end though!

  17. 21

    @Adit personnally I’m very very bad at choosing colors (I’m a programmer who likes to design) and I hope to get some clue in color selection for a webapp, the basics at least.

  18. 23

    Great article, this one point was the only thing I’d like clarified:

    Anyone want to take a stab at explaining the difference between chroma and saturation, in a nutshell?

    • 24

      Mr. Chromatic

      February 4, 2010 7:44 pm

      they’re the same, but in different mediums. Saturation traditionally was derived from pigment – how much color is in the ink or paint, and chroma from light emitting media (video). Ultimately they measure the same thing: the intensity of the hue component of the color.

  19. 25

    Great article. Color is a complex thing.

    To get your head around it, I recommend only worrying about the 3 main properties that make up a color: Hue, Saturation, and Value. When you learn how each of these work, concerning yourself with ‘tints’ and ‘tones’ and whatnot start to become redundant – and looking back when I started to learn color, I wish those terms weren’t taught to me – it only complicated things.

    As an example, and as the article shows, there’s a lot of overlap. Some of the sites shown in saturation or chroma sections could also fly in the other sections.

    • 26

      Yeah you’re right. I’m new to everything that is color, but like you said, I noticed the redundancy in the examples in value and tone, shade and tint. Also with saturation and chroma examples. I have this feeling that you just really need to trust your eyes, and with a knowledge of the theory.

  20. 27

    Colour Theory is something which every designer should be aware of. With out the basic knowledge of Colour Theory one cannot call him/herself a complete designer. Its interesting to know about colours and how humans relate to them in different parts of the world. Cameron your articles are just awesome. I’m waiting for Part 3. Cheers! Kris


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