How to Apply the Element of Design Colour to your Work.

Elements of Design. Example of Colour
06Jan, 2021

Elements of Design: Colour

In this article we take a look at the element of design, colour. Colour can be used with any of the other elements of design and with clever use, can create mood, meaning and uniformity. It is essential that a designer learn how to use the colour wheel to create colour relationships that are appropriate to the topic. Thankfully, these days there are many tools available that can help a designer to create appropriate colour palettes; however, an understanding of basic colour theory is still required to ensure quality and appropriate results. I’ll be reviewing these tools in a future article but for now, lets begin with the foundations of colour use.

Featured Image: Astrobrights Thank You Card by Ken Lo licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The Colour Wheel

The colour wheel is split into 12 basic hues (colours) that consist of the three primary colours (blue, yellow and red), three secondary colours and six tertiary colour.

Elements of Design Colour: Colour Wheel

The secondary colours are created by combining the primary colours. The tertiary colours sit halfway between the secondary and primary colours and are created by combining equal amounts of each. Additionally, the colour value changes from dark to light as you move into the centre of the wheel.

primary, secondary and tertiary colours

Left: Yellow, red and blue are the three primary colours. Middle: Combining equal amounts of the primary colours will create the secondary colours. Right: Tertiary colours are created by combining equal amounts of primary and secondary.

The main principle to understand is that every colour on the wheel is made up from the colour next to it. As a result, this forms the basis of creating colour relationships.

Colour Relationships

There are six main colour relationships that can be used to create a uniform colour palette.


A monochromatic colour palette is created by selecting different values (a combination of light, medium and dark) of a single colour. These combinations are easy on the eye, appear clean and have a calming or soothing effect.

monochromatic colour relationships


Analogous colours are a combination of adjacent colours. One colour serves as the dominant while the others complement it. They have  similar effects as monochromatic colour schemes; however, have slightly more colour depth.

Analogous Colour Relationship


Complementary colours sit directly across from each other on the colour wheel. Generally, this combination works best when combining cool and warm colours (blues and yellows) and is considered high contrast.

Compliment Colour Relationship

Split Complement

Move one step either side of a compliment colour and this will create a split complement. This combination is considered very high contrast.

Split Complement Colour Relationship

Double-Split Complement

This scheme uses two complimentary pairs and is the most varied of all the combinations. As a result, it can be difficult to generate an harmonious effect. It is recommended that varying values (shades) of each hue (colour) is used to achieve a favourable combination.

Elements of Design Colour: Double-Split Compliment Colour Relationship


Triad colour schemes are created by evenly splitting the wheel into three. This scheme has good visual contrast but not as much as the complement combinations. As a result, well balanced and harmonious combinations are relatively easy to create.

Triad Colour Relationship

How to use Colour Relationships

While there are no hard and fast rules when choosing a colour relationship, you should consider the overall feeling you are trying to convey.

Colour relationship such as Monochromatic and Analogous are generally easy to harmonise and apply. Additionally, they are calming and conservative by nature. However, they have have very little colour depth which can lead to lack of contrast if not properly considered.

Compliment, Split Complement, Double-Split Complement and Triad combinations are rich in colour depth and have high contrast which make them more dynamic. However, this can lead to colour saturation if not applied appropriately.

Colour Moods and Meanings

Colours can also have both positive and negative psychological effects on people. This is referred to as colour moods or meanings. The table below provides some common examples:

RedComfort, Blood, Beauty, Love, Heat, Passion, Aggression, Battle, Anger, Hunger, Negativity
BlueCool, Peace, Faith, Knowledge, Clean, Coldness, Depression, Detachment
YellowWarmth, Hope, Wisdom, Happiness, Caution, Warning, Jealousy, Envy
PurpleLuxury, Sophistication, Wealth, Excess, Mourning, Indulgence
OrangeSocial, Energy, Vibrancy, Health, Loudness, Low Class, Crass
GreenMoney, Joy, Healing, Nature, Poison, Greed, Envy

Cultural Meaning

Colours also have different cultural meanings depending geographical location or religious belief. Therefore, careful research should be undertaking if designing for a specific group.

Final Words

And that wraps up the series on the elements of design. Just remember, in order for a graphic design to communicate its message in a clear and concise manner, many factors need to be considered including using the elements of design. Furthermore, you should aim to include at least one (if not more) of these elements when creating a design.

About The Author
Matt Smith is a graphic designer and principal lecturer with expertise in print media and web design. He has over 20 years of experience under his belt and has dedicated much of his career to educating others. He founded Edgee in 2014 with the aim of providing quality education for new and experienced graphic designers. With ‘hands on’ experience and qualifications in graphic design, along with a Bachelor of Education in Adult Vocation, Matt combines his passion for design, typography and teaching with his expertise in Adobe Creative Suite to develop eBooks, tutorials and informative articles aimed at helping designers of all levels improve their skills and knowledge.