Color is arguably the most important visual element in UX design. Color has the power to influence our emotions and even our purchasing behaviors. The right color palette on a website can increase conversions and overall user satisfaction. The wrong color palette does just the opposite.
Understanding the color theory concepts like the color wheel, various color spaces, and how different kinds of colors evoke particular emotions is an important basis for implementing colors in your UX designs. Color theory is both science and art, though. There’s an intuitive element to creating exceptional color palettes.
How the Color Wheel Works
You might be familiar with the color wheel from art classes. It’s a circular representation of color hues, showing the relationships between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. It’s a valuable resource when creating color schemes and palettes.
Primary colors are colors that can’t be created by combining any other colors. In the subtractive color model (which is used in physical forms like pigments), they are red, blue, and yellow. In the additive color model (which is the color model created by different colors of light), they are red, green, and blue.
Combining any two primary colors gives us secondary colors. In the subtractive color model, secondary colors are green, orange, and purple. In the additive model, they are cyan, magenta, and yellow.
When you combine a primary color and one of its neighboring secondary colors, you get tertiary colors. Mixing them further creates more complex colors, called quaternary colors.
One way to understand the color wheel is by exploring warm and cool colors, as well as neutrals (which primarily exist outside of the color wheel structure).
Warm colors are associated with love, fire, passion, and strong emotions. These are the colors you’d find in a beautiful sunset: an array of red, orange, yellow, and all of their variations.
Warm colors can be intense, especially when they’re used in their pure form. Used as accent colors they can add life and excitement to a design. When used in large swaths, they can be overpowering if not tempered in other ways. In either case, they have a powerful impact on any design.
Cool colors are popular choices for branding. Blue, the only primary cool color, is the most popular favorite color worldwide. Other cool colors include green and purple, along with all of their variations.
Cool colors are commonly seen in nature—in water, the sky, and plants. These colors evoke feelings of calmness and relaxation, as well as loyalty and trust (another reason they’re so popular in branding). Blue is also widely associated with text links in UX design.
It’s tough to create an aesthetically pleasing design using only warm and cool colors. That’s where neutral colors come in. Neutral colors are the most subtle of the bunch and include black, white, gray, and various shades of brown (which is technically a muted form of orange—one reason it’s considered the warmest of the neutral hues).
Neutral colors are popularly used for typography (dark gray and black are the most popular colors for body text) and backgrounds. They can be overpowered if not used properly, but can also be used to make accent colors stand out in your design. Neutral colors can add an air of sophistication to your UX designs.
Combining colors from one or more of these groups creates a color palette. In the digital world, a color palette is a combination of colors that pair well and create a desired mood or feeling—warm colors create dynamic feelings; cool colors create calming feelings; neutrals can be used to enhance or soften either of those or to create sophisticated feelings.
Using a consistent color palette gives your users a feel for your product or brand’s personality. It can help unify different products or offerings across a brand by giving users a familiar touchpoint. Consistent color palettes are the visual building blocks for your product.