Color Theory in Branding



Pretty much everyone thinks they understand color; that it's simple, and intuitive. 


Did you know you CAN mix colors to get red, yellow, and blue? Your kindergarten teacher told you that you can't, and that's why they're the primary colors. That was a lie. Well, kind of. You get the brightest, most vibrant colors by mixing from primary colors.

If you're interested in mixing primary colors, I actually found my professor's website that includes his assignment of mixing a red. (Source.) 

I bring this up because color theory seems simple on the surface, but there's a lot of complexity when you dig into it.

I don't have the time or space to write out everything I learned about color theory in college, so I'll stick to what's relevant to your visual brand.

Basic Color Psychology

Color is closely tied to emotion, so choosing your color palette is, in a sense, choosing how your clients/customers will feel when interacting with your visual brand.

First, let's choose hues. Hues is where a color falls on the spectrum - red, yellow, purple, etc. The basic hues have general moods and concepts tied to them. Some of these are universal concepts, but a lot of them are ideas we've built through culture. For example, purple conveys a sense of luxury or royalty; that's because for a long time purple was the most expensive dye so only the rich could afford purple clothing.

Red represents: passion, anger, love, intensity

Orange represents: hunger, stimulation, enthusiasm

Yellow represents: happiness, energy, brightness, liveliness

Green represents: life, freshness, health

Blue represents: relaxation, calm, peace

Purple represents: luxury, sensuality, wisdom, mystery

Another facet of color to consider is its saturation or vibrancy. Simply put, its intensity. Bright, firetruck red gives off a very different impression than a muted dusty rose. Highly saturated colors generally evoke stronger and more intense emotions, whereas more muted colors are calming and sophisticated.

The third trait of color is its value - how light or dark it is. Value is most important in balancing colors in your palette - you want to make sure you have a good range of values so that no two colors are fighting each other.  Even in low contrast palettes, you want a variety of values.

Simultaneous Contrast

A fascinating concept in color theory is simultaneous contrast, which is how adjacent colors affect your perception. You can use contrast in colors to exaggerate opposites - for example, say you want an accent color of lemon yellow in your brand - if you're using muted colors for the rest of your palette, you don't actually have to use a super vibrant yellow - a medium tone will still pop out in your palette because it's vibrant in comparison to the other colors.

This is the main reason why when creating your brand guide, you want to design a color palette, not pick out individual colors. Simultaneous contrast means you have to pick colors within the context of the whole palette.

types of color schemes

Finally, one of the main cornerstones of color theory. Hopefully you're familiar with the color wheel.

The basics types of color palettes are named based on the position of the colors in your palette on the color wheel.

The three most important palettes you should be familiar with are:

  • Monochromatic

  • Complementary

  • Analagous


Monochromatic color schemes include colors that are shades of the same color. This is commonly used in brands that have a very iconic cornerstone brand color - such as Coke's red or Twitter's blue.

Monochromatic color schemes are good for visual brands that want to focus on one specific brand color and not dilute the recognition of that color by introducing a contrasting hue.


Complementary color schemes are based on two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. You see these schemes a lot in sports teams, such as the Mets' blue and orange.

Complementary color schemes are great for bringing dynamism to your visual brand. The high contrast of the two complementary colors brings energy to the design.



Analogous color schemes include colors all clumped together in the same area of the color wheel. Examples of brands that use analogous color schemes: Popeye's Chicken and BP.

Analogous color schemes are a nice balance between the focus of a monochromatic scheme and a complementary scheme. Introducing related colors adds dimension and variety to the palette, while still maintaining focus on the color psychology related to that area of the wheel.

Hope you enjoyed this brief overview of color theory and how it affects your visual brand. Do you have any questions about color I didn't cover here? Or is there another aspect of design you'd like me to dive a little deeper in? Let me know by commenting below!