Graphic Design
7 min read

Colour Theory For Business Owners

Written by Ollie Burt 

It's a highly visual world and good visual communication relies on a good understanding of colour theory. As a brand, business owner if you want to connect with your audience then it's advisable to get comfortable with the colour spectrum and what it means to your audience. Obviously, different colours and combinations mean different things to different people - but these theories are based on years of study and do represent the typical feelings towards colours and how they represent brands.

What is colour theory?

Colour theory is a collection of rules and guidelines used in graphic design. Brands use appealing colour schemes to communicate with users of visual interfaces. In order to choose the right colours for a brand, graphic designers use the colour wheel and refer to the prevailing colour theory, based on psychology, optical ability, culture and more.

We live in a world of colour. Every day we are constantly bombarded with visual information influenced by colour. These colours impact our emotions - and ultimately how we feel about something, including brands.

Many people make decisions every day based on colour theory and colour harmony and they don't even know it. A basic understanding of colour theory and colour harmony can assist in many areas of your life, from business to decorating your living room.

Marketers and brand experts have been using the psychology surrounding colour theory for decades to illicit an emotional response from customers and literally colour their thinking about a brand.

The colour wheel

The first step in understanding colour theory is getting to grips with the colour wheel. There are two models of the colour wheel in use today, RYB (red, yellow, blue) and RGB (red, green, blue).

RYB represents physical colour and is subtractive. That means it works by removing light - a good example being paint, if you keep adding it to a wall it would eventually build up to black.

RGB is a digital colour and is additive. This means it adds light as you add more colour, eventually turning to white.

What is a colour wheel?

A colour wheel is a basic tool for applying colour theory. It was developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1866, using physics he studied how light reflected off prisms to produce a colour disc. This discovery laid the foundation for the colour wheel as we know it today, which presents colours in a logical sequence, arranged in a circle.

The placement of colours on the colour wheel is important when understanding colour theory. In order to achieve colour harmony in your graphic design projects, whether a logo, brochure, website or flyer - you need to follow the rules of the colour wheel.

With an understanding of the rules of the colour wheel, you can begin applying them to colour theory when making branding decisions for your business. The guidelines can be explained through 3 main groups; primary colours, secondary colours and tertiary colours.

colour wheel

In order to create true colour harmony and communicate your brand effectively to your audience, it's important to understand what colours work well together and why.

primary colours

Primary colours

As indicated above, there are three primary colours - yellow, red and blue - these form the base from which all other colours are derived. By combining these colours in different sequences and concentrations we get secondary colours. Without them, we would not be able to create the variety of colour we see around us today.

secondary colours

Secondary colours

Secondary colours are the result of combining the three primaries in differing amounts and result in orange, violet and green.

tertiary colours

Tertiary colours

The six tertiary colours sit in between the primary and secondary colours that create them and take their first name from the primary colour with the last name coming from the secondary colour. They include yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green and yellow-green.

Designing colour schemes

There's no real hard and fast rules when it comes to design, but there are some basic principles when pairing and grouping colours together into a colour scheme. How we design a colour scheme depends on the brand, but It's rare to punt straight for primary colours - unless you want that 'crayola' look.

Depending on the brand identity and what type of design you want to project, usually we start with the main colour of the design/brand and go from there - following tried and tested methods of grouping colours together in a way that works.

complimentary colours

Complimentary colours:

One side of the colour wheel consists of warm colours and the other cool. By combining colours that are opposite each other, having one warm and one cool colour a designer can increase the contrast between the two, creating a bold design.

monochromatic colours

Monochromatic colours:

These are all the colours taken from a single hue and use shades, tones and tints to lighten or darken the original hue.

analogous colours

Analogous colours:

These are the colours right next to each other on the colour wheel - like blue, blue-violet and violet - and work together to create subtlety in a design, usually with one dominant colour.

triadic colours

Triadic colours:

Considered the opposite of monochromatic colour schemes, triadic colour schemes take three colours from the colour wheel to form a triangle and usually result in rich vibrant designs with high contrast.

tetradic colours

Tetradic colours:

Four colours made up of two sets of complementary colours. These four colours form a rectangular shape on the colour wheel.

Combining colour

Now that you know the basic rules surrounding colour harmony and how to group colours into colour schemes you should be ready to start thinking about your own brand. If you're keen to play about with colour for your brand, free tool Paletton is a great resource to help you build your own colour palette.

Colour theory is the art of combining multiple colours in a way that delivers the right visual message. Knowing how to do this effectively is a valuable skill, and can be the make or break of many brands - get it wrong and all your messaging is off.

Always remember, one colour should balance the next. Aim for one primary colour that best represents your brand and then go from there identifying other supporting colours that ad to it. Do that, and you're already off to a better start than most small businesses owners who choose a colour because they 'like it'.

Alternatively, if all this brings you out in a cold sweat - speak to us about our graphic design services. We're marketers at heart, so every design decision we make is based on research into your brand and your wider industry to build brands that really resonate with their target audience.

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The psychology of colour

If you thought that's all there was to colour, pairing ones together that 'look good' - you're wrong. When talking about branding, visual identity and graphic design your initial colour choices matter. Colours used by brands often help us decide how we think about them in a broader context.

red

Red

Often representing power or excitement. Red is youthful and bold, conveying different emotions to different people and often depends on the context. Passion, love, anger and rage all are closely aligned with red and is used by prominent brands including Netflix, Nintendo, Virgin and KFC.

green

Green

Often thought of as peaceful, representing health and growth we often see green used by environmentally friendly products and natural brands like Tropicana and Whole Foods - but also those looking to balance their identity like BP and Land Rover.

blue

Blue

Ever popular as the corporate colour of choice, sometimes representing masculinity - blue is seen to convey trust and professionalism. Used by big brands and tech companies alike including Facebook, Pfizer, WordPress, Dell and Oreo.

tetradic colours

Yellow

Representing optimism, clarity and warmth, yellow is an energetic colour often used in child-focussed brands - but also Ikea, Ferrari, Hertz and McDonalds.

orange

Orange

Orange is friendly and cheerful giving the overall sense of vitality and emotional wellness. A confident colour used by brands such as Fanta, Harley Davidson, Amazon and Nickelodeon.

tetradic colours

Violet

Violet, or purple, adds a sense of majesty to a brand and is ideal for luxurious products to convey a sense of opulence. Used by brands such as Cadbury, Hallmark and Aussie to great effect.

black

Black

Black never goes out of fashion. Best paired with a high contrasting colour to offset the dark, black can convey a sense of elegance and sophistication for a brand when used sparingly.

white

White

Like many colours, white can be a negative when overused - but utilised in the right way white can convey feelings of cleanliness, purity and innocence. A complimentary colour that goes with almost anything.

grey

Grey

The area between black and white, the 'grey area', is best avoided in most brands - often seen as dull, emotionless and moody. Used to great effect by Apple - but then they usually break the rules.

brown

Brown

Quality, comfort, friendliness and approachability are just some of the characteristics associated with brown. Used to give brands that homely feel, but needs to be paired with a variety of earthy tones to work well.

pink

Pink

Best thought of on the sweet side of red, pink traditionally portrays femininity, calmness and romance. Used by Pandora ,numerous cosmetics brands, and Barbie.

turquoise

Turquoise

Somewhere between green and blue, turquoise is a cool and calming colour that symbolises wisdom, creativity and emotional stability. Used by brands ... like us, Nova Internet.

Choosing colours for your brand

Experience marketing professionals and savvy business owners understand the importance of colour when building a brand. As we've shown you, each colour has it's own meaning and power to evoke a significant emotional response from your audience.

Many successful brands can attribute that to powerful brand recognition with effective use of colour throughout logo design and marketing materials said to increase brand recognition by an estimated 80%.

The best marketing strategies use their consumers' emotions to sell their product or service effectively. Using colour as a tool is a powerful way to deliver the right message. As we've highlighted, every colour carries its own meaning and emotions. As a business owner, you need to make sure you're using this to your advantage.

Your brand colours can be used everywhere - in your logo, your website, social media and marketing assets being obvious choices. But as a business owner you also need to consider staff clothing, advertising, signage - maybe even branded swag. So, before you commit to a colour because you like it, consider all its uses - your staff might not appreciate wearing a bright orange uniform in all settings.

Here's some examples of brands that use colour to project the right image for their products:

colour theory brands

Conclusion

To some people, an understanding of colour theory comes naturally - but it's still good to hone those skills, especially as a marketer. For those who it doesn't come so easy, hopefully this guide has given you a basic understanding of colour theory and why it's important.

As a business owner, the decisions you make for your brand have far-reaching implications and can often be the difference that leads to success.

If you find you need a little guidance when making these decisions we're here to help. We're highly experienced when it comes to establishing startups and building brands that grow.

Our graphic design services have a heavy focus on marketing and thorough research to help you make the right decisions. Get in touch to see how we can help.

Originally published 26th January 2021
Last edited 26th January 2021

Written by Ollie Burt

Ollie Burt is a Director at Nova. A specialist in helping small businesses and startups succeed online, he enjoys running (and beer) - he does not enjoy discussing himself in the third person. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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