BY Benjamin

September 15, 2021

What exactly is the colour theory? Perhaps you’ve asked about its significance in design and why designers in various industries always use it as a basis. 

The colour theory is a set of guidelines and rules used to create aesthetically pleasing colour schemes in visual interfaces. It involves using the colour wheel to reference how humans perceive colours through optical ability, culture, psychology and more. 

The main goal of the colour theory is to combine colours that best attract the human eye and is therefore visually pleasing. 


Sir Isaac Newton created what we know as the colour wheel in 1666, establishing the foundation for the colour theory. Newton knew colours as more than just absolute quantities but human perceptions of light wavelengths. With that proposition, he systematically categorised colours into three groups:

  • Primary Colours: red, blue and yellow
  • Secondary Colours: combinations of the primary colours
  • Tertiary Colours: combinations of primary and secondary colours

Thanks to Newton’s proposition, the study of colour expanded into properties of colour, which are print or paint and screen or light. Not only that, but they also varied in different fields, including art and astronomy. The said properties are:

  • Hue or how a colour appears
  • Chroma or its level of purity
  • Lighting or how pale or saturated it looks

Now, the colour theory is a requirement for all designs, including user experience (UX) designs, to create harmony and meaning in each one of them. 


Designers follow the additive colour model in screen design, which uses red, blue and green as primary colours instead of red, blue and yellow. Colour choices are meant to optimise the users’ screen experience in attractive interfaces with high usability, just like the strategic placing of elements in visual design. 

Designers use these colour schemes in everything they create:

  • Complementary: Using colour pairs placed opposite each other on the colour wheel. For instance, blue and yellow, to maximise the contrast between the two colours.
  • Split Complementary: Adding colours from either left or right side of a complementary colour to soften the contrast.
  • Analogous: Using three colours placed side by side on the colour wheel. For instance, yellow-green, yellow and yellow-orange. Adding white to the colours creates a high-key analogous colour scheme.
  • Monochrome: Using one hue and making multiple elements from its many shades and tints.
  • Triadic: Taking three colours evenly spaced out from each other on the colour wheel shows harmonious contrast. Usually, triadic can create more visually appealing designs than with the complementary scheme.
  • Tetradic: Taking two sets of complementary pairs while choosing one as the dominant colour. That makes a rich, exciting combination of colours that, in turn, make a visually appealing design. However, you should note the balance between coolness and warmth.
  • Square: Using four colours equally distant from each other on the colour wheel.


The colour theory is an excellent basis for creating visually appealing designs, but you should also consider your brand’s personality and design goals when designing graphics. You can use the colour theory’s psychological impact on users, but you should also align your colour choices with your branding identity. If you don’t, your design will ultimately fail. 

You could have created a striking design, but it will get lost in translation if it fails to communicate your branding. So use the psychological element of colours to reflect your brand message in the design.

55 Knots is an affordable graphic design service in Australia offering on-demand and unlimited graphic design subscriptions. We are one of Australia’s leading creative agencies, making graphics with maximum creative impact for businesses big and small. Our art directors create design strategies with a seven-day trial guaranteed free of charge! For your graphic needs, 55 Knots is what you need! Get in touch with us today and let us know how we can help.


Share it with a mate.


Captain of ships and commander to a crew of designers. Benjamin Williams is a creative director with over 20 years of experience working with the world’s largest brands.