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Beginner’s Guide to Picking a Great Colour Scheme

You have the perfect idea for your promotional material. You’ve brainstormed the purpose, layout and exactly how you will be writing your flyer, brochure or postcard. Now you just need to get around to designing your materials. You open up your editing software…and realise that you’re unable to get the colours to fit together. Sound familiar?

Colours are so ubiquitous in our world that many of us don’t bother spending time to think about how they all fit together. All too often we place so much emphasis on telling our audience what they need to know that we neglect the design elements of our promotional materials. As a result of this, most people tend to do either one of two things:

    1. Hire a professional designer to design their materials, setting themselves back more than $100, or
    2. Design it themselves, without realising that only would a great colour scheme grab attention and keep it, but that a poor colour scheme can actually hurt their credibility and turn away potential customers.

A common misconception is that only professional “designers” or “artists” have an innate sense of colour and everyone else is doomed to making poor colour choices. What most people do not realise is that there is actually a very simple framework that you can adopt that will allow you to easily create matching colour schemes.

Rather than making you a world-class designer, this guide attempts to distil the essence of choosing colours that go well together so that you can immediately implement it for any promotional materials you have.

Introducing the Colour Wheel

Remember the colour wheel from art class? That’s actually your friend.

This is how the colour wheel works. You start with the 3 primary colours (red, blue, yellow).

Primary colours chart - Red, Yellow, Blue

The secondary colours are formed by mixing the 3 primary colours side by side. Red mixes with yellow to form orange, yellow mixes with blue to form green, and blue mixes with red to form purple.

Secondary colour chart - Mixing adjacent primary colours

The tertiary colours are further formed by mixing colours adjacent to each other.

Tertiary colour chart - Mixing adjacent secondary colours

How is knowing about the colour wheel useful? Well the colour wheel gives us an easy way of understanding how colours can work together, so we can spend less time thinking about colour and more time about other design factors.

So now you know how the colour wheel is created, but how do you actually use it?

Warm and Cool Colours

While warm and cool colours are not colour schemes per se, they will subsequently play an important role when choosing your colour schemes.

Chart of warm and cool colours

In general, cool colours invoke a sense of calmness and recede in the background, while warm colours are more active and “pop” into the foreground. This will become especially clear when looking at the complementary colour scheme.

Complementary Colours

Complementary colours are colours opposite to each other on the colour wheel.

Complementary colours chart - Complementary colours are colours opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Complementary colours have the effect of providing a high contrast, and are often used to provide emphasis to an image. In general, the cool colours will recede and the warm colours will stand out, allowing you to make an image “pop” out into the foreground. Used correctly, it is one of the best ways to naturally draw your audience’s attention to a central object. The main downsides of using this colour scheme is that it is often difficult to incorporate multiple elements into your image, on top of the fact that the contrast is often too stark and can be glaring on the eyes.

An example of a complementary colour scheme - Drawing attention to warm colour of the butterfly's wings in contrast to the cool colours fo the background greenery.

The above image is dominated by cool greenery, yet notice how your eyes very naturally go towards the butterfly’s warm orange wings. This is one example of how effective use of complementary colours can draw your audience’s attention to a central image.

Another example of a complementary colour scheme - Drawing attention to warm colour of the poppies in the field of grass with cool green colour.

The above image is yet another example of effective use of complementary colours. In the image of the poppy field, the cool green grass and the warm red poppies take up an equal amount of real estate. Despite this however, our eyes may notice the greenery, but inevitably we place more focus on the warm red poppies. Once again, the cool colour recedes into the background and the warm colour “pops” out of the image to become the central focus.

Split Complementary

Split complementary colours are formed by taking two adjacent colours (one on each side) and a complementary colour. This produces a characteristic “Y” shape on the colour wheel.

Split complementary colours - Used for creating contrast in the image without compromising harmony.

Split complementary colours are an interesting variation of the complementary colour scheme. While complementary colours work well to make an image “pop”, this contrast is often too glaring and can be hard to pull off. By using split complementary colours, we can harmonise the overall image, while still providing a central point of focus.

An example of split complementary colour scheme - the cool greenery in the background is noticeable, and the warm red and orange colours blend well to create a harmonious image

In the above image, red and orange colours are both warm colours that are close to each other on the colour wheel and thus harmonises well. Combined with the cool greenery in the background, the fruits are clearly highlighted in the image while still retaining a high level of harmony.

Analogous Colours

Analogous colours are colours that are side by side on the colour wheel.

Analogous colours - The master of harmony

Analogous colours are great for images that are meant to be taken in as a whole. This is particularly useful for scenery or background imagery, where it is effective for generating a sense of serenity or harmony and there is no need for a central point of focus.

An example of analogous colours - Due to the harmony of the colours, your eyes dance around the image and take it in as a whole.

In the above image, all the colours blend together harmoniously. Consisting of all cool colours, there is no central focus and as a result the image is taken in as a whole. Of all the colour schemes, analogous colours have the most significant calming effect.

Putting It All Together

You may know a friend or two with a “natural affinity” for colours, and who can seemingly pull colours out of the air and still make a design look great. For the rest of us however, the colour wheel gives us a simple yet highly effective model to think about colours so we can save time and focus on the other elements of our marketing efforts.

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