Did you know that the average human eye is capable of distinguishing as many as 10 million different colors?
Color is one of the most fundamental aspects of our experience. When you’re designing a website, your choice of color has a huge impact on how visitors engage with your site. It’s usually what makes the first impression for them.
In fact, research shows that 90% of snap judgments about brands are based on color!
Using the right colors on your website, whether you’re designing it from scratch or looking to choose a WordPress theme, is essential. Some basic understanding of color theory is extremely helpful here.
In this article, I’ll present to you the basic concepts behind color schemes, and how to implement them on your site.
Types of color schemes: how to choose colors that work together
Designers don’t pick colors haphazardly. They work with a palette of colors that harmonize in a carefully balanced way.
There are several different ways to choose colors, depending on how they relate across the color wheel, the most important tool for understanding color schemes. This diagram visualizes the relationship between different hues by placing them in a spectrum around a circle.
On a color wheel, the primary colors – red, blue and yellow – are placed at three equally spaced points. In between are the different gradients: red fading through purple into blue, blue through green into yellow, and yellow through orange into red.
Without going into too much theoretical detail, here are the most common color schemes and how to use them on your website.
Building a color scheme on complementary colors is the simplest way to create a look that’s vibrant, bold and lively, especially if the colors are at full saturation.
These colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Think blue and orange, purple and yellow or red and green.
Complementary colors make elements stand out in high contrast, but they have to be used wisely so as not to become too loud and jarring. Instead of making your whole page blue and orange, for example, you might base it mostly on a neutral tone (white, gray or beige) and use flashes of these colors to highlight important areas.
Also, keep in mind that while their contrast might be strong, complementary colors aren’t necessarily good for text. The brightness of the background can cause eyestrain.
Many logos are based on complementary colors and variations. A few examples:
- Gatorade (green, orange)
- Visa (blue, orange-yellow)
- LA Lakers (orange, purple)
- FedEx (orange, purple)
A triadic color scheme is based on three colors at opposing points on the color spectrum. That makes it sound complicated, but it’s actually very easy to come up with them. Just take a color wheel, choose a base color, and draw an equilateral triangle starting from that point.
If you start with blue, for example, the other points of your triangle will land on yellow and red.
Triadic color schemes tend to be vibrant and can get very loud. It’s important to use them in a balanced, harmonious way, letting one color dominate and the others serve as accents. Go for quieter versions of your base hues and avoid high saturation.
Compound or split-complementary
A split-complementary color scheme is a good choice for beginners. It’s hard to go wrong, especially if the scheme is centered on two main colors with the third as an accent.
Start with a pair of complementary colors. For one of them, choose instead two hues on either side.
So if you start with straight red and green, you replace red with purple and orange. (You can also do this with both base hues for a compound complementary scheme.)
Split-complementary schemes are also used in many famous logos:
- Firefox (blue, orange, yellow)
- 7-Eleven (green, red, orange)
- Taco Bell (blue, pink, yellow)
- Fanta (orange, blue, green)
The color plans up to now are based on contrast. An analogous color scheme, on the other hand, uses colors that are next to each other on the color wheel: blue and purple, or yellow and orange, for example.
This usually gives a sense of balance, harmony and naturalness.
An extreme version of this is a monochromatic color scheme, using only shades of a single color.
The trick with analogous schemes is to create enough contrast that the page looks clear and alive. As with triadic schemes, it’s best to choose one dominant color, supported by one or two others.
Many successful websites use some form of analogous color scheme plus one contrasting accent hue from across the color wheel.
Analogous color schemes don’t have to be meek and conservative. For a bold example, check out this futuristic page by Play agency for a Russian high-tech expo. Tori’s Eye, a Twitter analysis tool, has a playful and energetic look based on analogous colors.
Putting your color scheme into action
As I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s always good to think in terms of main colors and accents. You want to avoid competing colors, since they will distract the eye and make it unclear where the viewer should focus.
Start designing your color scheme by choosing one base color. A few tips:
- Use what you have. If your company already has a logo, use that to inform your website’s color scheme.
- Consider your target audience. What color will appeal most to them? What are they looking for on your site, and what color will best suggest to them that you can provide it?
- Don’t use the same colors as your competition.
- Brainstorm some words that you associate with your brand, and use colors commonly associated with these concepts. However…
- Avoid clichés. Who decided that every web startup has to have a blue website, for example? Breaking the mould will make your site more memorable.
Once you choose a base color, choose one or two secondary colors to support it, using one of the color schemes I described above.
Just as important as these colors, if not more so, are the neutral colors on your page. White, black, beige and gray are invaluable. For many sites, they are the framework of the page, on which the other colors are added in measured doses.
There are a lot of advantages to a site that’s heavy on neutrals. Check out these beautiful, ultra-modern examples, almost entirely in neutral tones:
Neutral tones read as quiet, spacious and sophisticated. They support your message and highlight important elements, without distracting from anything. They also make the other colors you use stand out.
A dash of sky blue on a mostly gray page is fun and exciting. On a page that’s already colorful, no-one will notice it.
In most cases, you will want an average of three neutral colors on every page, including white. Add to this two, or at most three, brighter hues, and you have more than enough for your palette. a nice example of how to adopt a design style according to a specific audience (eduction) can be seen in this article.
Color theory is an almost bottomless rabbit hole of concepts, techniques and information. However, you don’t need to be Picasso to design a beautiful, harmonious website that conveys your message and engages your viewers.
I hope this article gives you something to start with. One of the easiest, theory-lightest way to learn more is to learn by example. Spend some time looking at the most beautiful, trendy websites and carefully observe how they use color. The more you train your eye, the more design decisions will come intuitively.
Of course, an easy way to ensure a good-looking website is to use a quality WordPress theme, giving you the aesthetics of professional design without much effort on your part. Themeforest is one of the largest and most popular theme sites. Ocean Web Themes is also a great source for themes, especially ones with a sleek, ultra-modern look.