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20 things to know about color

(Mostly borrowed from my HOW Design Live talk, Color: 99 Things You Really Oughta Know)

Jim Krause, HOW Design Live, May 2017

01 Don’t be intimidated by color—it’s not that complicated. After all, there are only three components to any
color you can see: hue, saturation, and value (definitions below). Just these three things, only these three
things, and always these three things. Just three! So how complicated can it really be?

02 If something seems wrong with a color, just fiddle with its hue, saturation, and/or value. This is true whether
you’re working with a stand-alone color or individual hues within a palette.

03 What are colors, anyway? Colors are specific wavelengths of electromagnetic energy generated by sources of
light like the sun or a desk lamp. These wavelengths of energy bounce off objects, pass through our eye, and
trigger signals that are delivered along our optic nerve to our brain where they are perceived and labeled as
colors: red, yellow, hot pink, periwinkle, and so on. That said, and if you want to get all existential about it, it
could be argued that color doesn’t really exist. That, instead, color is a mentally contrived phenomena confined
to the space within our skulls. Which brings up the question, If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to see
it, are its leaves still green?

04 Hue is just another word for color. Saturation refers to how bright or how dull a color is. A fully saturated
color is bright and intense; a desaturated color appears muted and dull. Value, in terms of color, refers to a
hue’s degree of darkness or lightness.

05 Value is priority number one when building color schemes. This is because distinct differences in value are
what allow colors to stand out against each other. Clean and clear value differences between the colors in your
layouts and illustrations make it easy for viewers to see what’s going on. Weak and indistinct value differences
can confuse, frustrate, and even repel.

06 What’s the best way for you to judge value differences between hues? By squinting at them. Squinting­—hard—
reduces the amount of color information reaching your brain and makes it easier to judge and correct value
differences between the colors you’re working with.

07 It’s far easier to evaluate value differences between shades of gray than it is to judge differences between
colors’ values. That’s why I like to begin design and illustration projects using only grays whenever possible.
(I typically use between four and eight values of gray—rarely more.) That way I can focus my attention on the
piece’s compositional elements like size relationships, positioning, and grouping—and also on the grays-only
value structure going on between these elements. Then, once I’m happy with the look of things, I swap out the
grays for colors with similar values.

08 Say I’ve created an all-grays version of the layout or illustration I’m working on. And say that I’m using Illustrator
to create the piece. How can I go about replacing my grays with colors that have similar values? First, I click
on an element that’s filled with a particular gray, go to the menu bar, and choose Select > Same > Color Fill.
Illustrator then selects all elements that are filled with that gray. Next, I activate the Eyedropper tool and click
on a color sample that’s about the same value as the gray (I often pre-create a multi-value grid of sample-ready
colors and place them near my layout or illustration for this stage of the creative process). And presto: All the
grays fill themselves with the color I clicked on with the Eyedropper tool. I repeat this process for all the grays
in my layout or illustration while also allowing myself to change my mind and make adjustments as I work.

09 Given that the computer makes it so easy to populate your layouts and illustrations with color schemes—and
also because it makes it so easy to change your mind about the colors you’re using—be sure to give yourself
plenty of color-scheme options to choose from before selecting a winner. I’ll often save a dozen or more
differently colored versions of a layout or an illustration before I even think about selecting a favorite.
10 How do you know when a color is right? Here’s a four-part checklist (and it’s interesting to note that only the
first item has anything to do with color theory). A color is right when:
- It’s the right hue; has the right level of saturation; and is the right value
- It appeals to the audience that you and your client are targeting (get to know this audience’s tastes before
getting too deep into any project!)
- It’s properly in-step with trends (pay constant attention to the ever-changes trends of color!)
- It appears unique. Make sure, in other words, that the color(s) you’re presenting to your client aren’t
similar to the color(s) being used by one of your client’s competitors

11 Get to know the color wheel. Not only will the color wheel help you remember what happens when hues are
mixed (yellow blended with blue makes green, blue-green, and yellow-green, for example), it can also be used
as a tool for coming up with color schemes (monochromatic, complementary, triadic, and more). Want your
own copy of the color wheel? And also a chart of color-wheel-based palettes? How about printing the last two
pages of this PDF and tacking them up in your workspace for reference?

12 When using the color wheel to come up with color schemes, always remember that each slice of the wheel
should be seen as a mere placeholder for all possible dark, light, bright, and muted versions of that color.

13 Don’t feel like you have to stick with the exact definition of a certain color-wheel palette when building a color
scheme. Rather, think of color-wheel-based palettes as good starting places for your color schemes—while also
remaining open to either adding or removing hues from the palette as you work. Do this even if it means going
against the strict definition of the of palette you started with. Listen to your art sense on this one.

14 The Color Picker panel available in illustrator and Photoshop is a great tool for finding darker, lighter, brighter,
and more muted versions of any color. Get to know this panel and how it works. It’s easy; it’s intuitive; and it
allows you to have the final say in the colors you’re using for your design and art projects. (InDesign also has a
Color Picker panel but its version is far less useful.)

15 Black and/or white can always be included as part of a palette. Also, in place of white, consider using near-
whites like light ivories or pale grays.

16 Keep a color-formula book within reach of your workspace to help you come up with color ideas and to find
specific CMYK and RGB formulas. May I suggest Color Index 2 or the soon-to-be published Color Index XL?
(Both written by me, as it so happens). Info related to these books is on my site:

17 Keep your eyes open to great works of design and art for color ideas. Regularly look through magazines and
websites that offer eye-opening examples of color. Check out your local art museums and galleries, too.

18 Consider taking pictures (or downloading .jpgs) of great color schemes—whenever and wherever you find
them. Save these images to something like a “color ideas” file on your computer.

19 How about painting? For fun and without expectations? Painting with real-world media allows us to experience
what really happens, in real time, on real paper, when real-life colors are blended, mixed, and applied side-by-
side. Personally, I think that painting can teach us more practical lessons about color than just about anything
else. Plus, painting is fun and relaxing—as long as you don’t expect a masterpiece every time.

20 There’s a LOT more to color than what I’ve included in this handout. If you want to learn more about color,
consider taking a look at my 28-chapter color course, Color for Design and Art, and also my
book, Color For Designers. The front page of my site features links to both the video course and the book.























The traditional color wheel is built around the three pirimary colors of red,
yellow, and blue. The secondary colors of orange, green, and violet are created
from blends of the wheel’s foundational primaries. Tertiary colors fill the
remainder of the color wheel’s spokes; these hues are made when primary and
secondary colors are blended.
Palettes can be created using hues taken from the color wheel in a variety
of ways. Keep in mind that you can stick with the palette definitions shown
below for an entire color scheme, or you can simply use them as starting
places for any color scheme that looks good to your creative eye.


Monochromatic palettes are made Complementary palettes are built Split-complementary palettes are
by breaking down one spoke of the using hues borrowed from slices created when a hue from one slice
color wheel into any number of that sit opposite each other on the of the color wheel is combined with
dark, light, bright, and/or muted color wheel. hues from the two slices on either
versions of that color. side of the first color’s complement.


Analogous palettes are made Triadic palettes are formed using When building any kind of
using colors taken from three, hues borrowed from three equally color-wheel-based palette, think
four, or five (or even more, if you spaced slices of the color wheel. of each slice of the wheel as a
like) adjacent color-wheel hues. placeholder for all possible dark,
light, bright, and muted versions
of that slice’s hue.