Visual Design Theory & the Web


The Phenomena of Color

Color is a phenomena that happens when light strikes our eyes at different wavelengths of radiation. Objects have no color of their own, only the ability to reflect a certain wavelength of light back to our eyes. The visible spectrum of color for the typical human eyes is between 400-700 nanometers (nm), with red being at one end (700 nm), violet at the other (400 nm), and every other color in between these two.

This color spectrum demonstrate scientifically how the phenomena of color occurs useing wavelength as a scale (UV = ultraviolet; IR = infrared). Artists and designers use color wheels to identify colors and their relationships to other colors.

A simple color wheel. Note how red, the largest visible wavelength, meets violet, the shortest visible wavelength.

Color Vocabulary

When discussing color, it's important to have a common working vocabulary.


This is where a color is positioned on the color wheel. Terms such as red, blue-green, and mauve all define the hue of a given color.
Value refers to the general lightness (close to white) or darkness (close to black) of a color.
Shade refers to darkness of value. Black is added to achieve shades.
Tine refers to lightness of value. White is added to achieve tints.
Saturation refers to the intensity of color, often referred to as the amount of chroma.
Colors that are desaturated are described as having tone. Gray is added to achieve tones.

Color Schemes & Harmonies

Color schemes serve to describe the relationships certain colors have to one another, and how they can be combined to create a palette of color. Here are some examples of common color schemes:

A complementary color scheme consists of 2 hues on opposite sides of the color wheel.
A monochromatic color scheme consists of 1 hue, but can occur in varying values (lightness, darkness).
An analagous color scheme consists of 3-5 hues that are adjacent to each other on color wheel.
A triadic color scheme consists of 3 hues equidistant from each other on the color wheel. Primary colors and secondary colors are examples of color triads.

Let's look at some examples of these schemes as they occur in the real world.


A complementary color scheme is composed of 2 complementary hues.
Complementary colors in Web Design Ledger -
Complementary colors in General Robots -


A monochromatic color scheme is composed of 1 hue, possibly in different values.
A primarily monochromatic colors in Chyma - Watch for the accents of green bullets and orange RSS feeds. Note that they don't destroy the color scheme.
If it weren't for the rainbow-colored filmstrip in the center this design would be monochromatic! What does the color splash do in this design? Digital Mash -


Monochromatic is not to be confused with the achromatic (no hues) color scheme of Black Estate Black Estate -


An analagous color scheme consists of 3-5 adjacent hues.
Blue, green, yellow make an analgous scheme, as in Silverback -
Blue and green are popular analagous colors, and we'll soon find out why. Soh Tanaka -
Orange and red accents make this an analagous color scheme. Black, white, and gray are achromatic, so they don't count. The History Channel -


This triadic color scheme consists primarily of the 3 primary colors.
This triadic color scheme consists primarily of the 3 secondary colors.

Triadic color schemes are rare on the web, but not impossible. Can you find some good examples?

It's triadic, plus green, which makes it what? Global Zoo -

We'll look at examples of how color is used (and abused) on the Web later in this lesson!

Classic design theory relies on this understanding of color to produce color compositions that are pleasing to the eye. Another approach to the use of color in design studies how humans tend to react to different colors--particularly when those reactions are conformative to a norm; this area of study is called color psychology.