Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Color is fundamental in any good design. In the right hands, it can be an incredibly powerful tool. Color can change the way viewers feel about your design. It can make them react, think twice, even push them to perform an action. If you’re going to be wielding color as a design tool, it’s important to know how to talk about it. Knowing color vocabulary can help you clearly express your designs with fellow designers, retailers, brands, and more. Here is a list of key color theory terms. Bookmark this to come back to whenever you need it!
Additive Color: Additive color synthesis is the creation of color by mixing colors of light.
Analogous: Harmonious colors that are located right next to each other on the color wheel.
Chromaticity (aka Chroma): A measure of how much “pure” color or hue is present. The presence of white, grey, or black in a color would diminish its chromaticity. A color with a lot of chroma is vivid.
Complementary Colors: Colors opposite each other on the color wheel. These provide contrast.
Cool Colors: Colors on the green-blue side of the color wheel.
Hue: Pure color as represented on the color wheel
Value: The lightness or darkness of a color. It relates to how much whiteness has been added to the hue. The more white, the higher the value.
Color Wheel: The Color Wheel is a circular diagram of the color hues used to show the relationships between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.
Neutral Colors: You will rarely find neutrals on any color wheel. This includes white, black and grays and near neutrals like brown and beige.
Primary Colors: Three pigment colors that can’t be formed by any combination of other colors. Whole color systems are based around them. The tricky part? They change depending on the system! Common systems include subtractive, aka CMYK, which is based on cyan, magenta, and yellow, and additive (RGB) which is based on red, green and blue. The painting system RYB is based on red, yellow, and blue.
Saturation: Saturation is often used interchangeably with chroma as they both refer to how vivid a hue is, but they have specific differences. The saturation of a color is determined by a combination of light intensity and how much it is distributed across the spectrum of different wavelengths. The purest (most saturated) color uses just one wavelength at a high intensity, like the light from a laser.
Secondary Colors: Colors created by the combination of two primary colors from their system, i.e. yellow + blue = green.
Shade: A hue or mixture of pure colors to which black is added. Tinted color is the same color but darker than the original.
Split-Complementary Colors: Split-complementary colors are like complementary colors, except one of the complements is split into two adjacent analogous colors. To find a color’s split-complementary colors, select the two colors adjacent to the color opposite the original on the wheel. You’ll end up with three colors to design with.
Subtractive Color: Subtractive color is the creation of color by mixing colors of pigment, such as paint or printer ink.
Tint: A hue or mixture of pure colors to which white is added. Tinted color is the same color but paler than the original. Pastels are one example.
Tertiary Colors: The result of the mix of the primary and secondary colors. Tertiary colors often have two-word names. Think “yellow-green” or “magenta-red.”
Triadic Colors: Three separate colors that are equidistant on the color wheel. Try using one color as a dominant and the others as accents.
Warm Colors: Colors on the yellow, orange, and red side of the color wheel.