Design is communication. Just like writers use words to communicate with their readers, designers use visual language to deliver the right experience. Designers have a lot of different tools to create a proper visual language, and color is one of the most powerful in their toolbox.

Great color palettes can create the right mood and motivate visitors to take an action. But when designing a new product, it’s often hard to decide on the color scheme because there are so many possible color combinations. In this article, I will cover the basics on what to take into account when choosing a color palette for your product.

The basics of color theory

Before diving into details on how to choose a color palette for your next project, it’s important to understand a few basic terms about color.

Hue

Hue is one of the main properties of a color. It means both a color and a shade of a color (a color mixed with black). For example, blue, green, orange, and yellow — each of these is a hue.

Rainbow spectrum of colors with different hues
Color hue scale

Saturation

Color saturation is the intensity of color. As saturation increases, the colors appear to be purer.

Saturation scale (0% at left, corresponding to black and white)
Color saturation

Tone

A tone is produced by mixing a color with grey.

Color tone for red hue
Color tone example. Image by color-hex.

Tint

A tint is a mixture of a color with white, which reduces darkness.

Blue color tint
Color tint example

Here is how all elements work together:

Diagram of Painters Color Mixing Terminology
Painter’s color mixing terminology graph

Main color scheme

A color wheel is a must-have tool for creating color palettes. Anyone who wants to create their color scheme should use the color wheel.

Twelve color wheel
Color wheel

Below are three main color scheme standards that make creating new schemes easier, especially for beginners:

Monochromatic

Monochromatic color scheme is the simplest to create because it’s created from different shades of a single hue. Colors in this scheme go well together, producing a soothing effect. But despite its simplicity, it’s easy to create a boring UI using monochromatic scheme so be careful!

Monochromatic color scheme with a Facebook example
A monochromatic color scheme

Analogous

Analogous colors are groups of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. As the name suggests, analogous color palettes are created using analogous colors. Usually, one color is used as a dominant color while others are used to enrich the scheme.

Analogous color scheme with a mobile example
An analogous color scheme

Complementary

Complementary colors are opposite of each other on the color wheel. The high contrast of complementary colors creates a vibrant look. In their most basic form, complementary color schemes consist of only two colors that contrast strongly. This scheme is used to attract the viewer’s attention.

Complementary colors with an app icon example
Complementary color scheme

6 things to remember when creating a color palette for your UI

Many designers match colors based on their intuition. While this approach is not bad per se, the outcome depends on your personal taste as well as intuition, which can be hard to standardize. In this section, I want to share a more systematic approach for selecting and using colors. Here are some fundamental rules that you need to remember when working with color.

1. Always start with greyscale

Сhoosing colors is fun, and that’s why designers invest a significant amount of time on this activity. But before trying various color combinations for your UI, it’s vital to remember the state of your user interface. If you’re only at the beginning of the design process, it’s better to start with black & whites or grayscale. Why? Because it will help you maintain focus. Your attention will be on creating great visual hierarchy for your layout, and not on selecting the color for call-to-action buttons.

2. Keep it simple

Applying color to design has a lot to do with balance, and the more colors you use, the harder it is to achieve balance. Using too many colors is a common design mistake. It’s a common pitfall for non-experienced designers because they often select colors randomly and end-up creating a rainbow effect (when products have so many colors, so they become extremely distracting).

Generally, it’s recommended to stick to a maximum of 3 primary colors in your color scheme. According to a University of Toronto study on how people used Adobe Color, most people said they preferred simple color combinations that rely on only two or three colors.

3. 60-30-10 rule

Now we know that our color scheme should have a maximum of three colors, it’s time to know how to choose those three colors. A well-known decorating rule can help us to do it. 60-30-10 is a rule of interior design. It says that to create a visually stable composition, you need to use 60% for your dominant hue, 30% for your secondary color, and 10% for an accent color. The key idea of this rule is that the secondary color supports the primary color, but is different enough to set them apart. And accent color is used to create focal points. In UI design, accent colors are used to highlight the key message or functional element (such as a call to action button).

Color scheme room following the 60-30-10 rule
Photo showing 60/30/10 scale. Image by UxPlanet.

4. Consider the emotional impact of colors

It’s a well-known fact that colors can provoke emotions. The emotions that colors evoke determine how users perceive your product. That’s why when you’re choosing a color palette for your product, it’s vital not only to think about how things look but also think about how they feel too.

Here is how colors generally perceived in the Western world:

  • Red. Power, passion, danger, importance
  • Orange. Playful, energetic, cheap
  • Yellow. Cheerful, friendly, attention-seeking
  • Green. Natural, safe, fresh
  • Blue. Calm, reliable, trustworthy
  • Purple. Luxury, romantic, spiritually
  • Pink. Feminine, youth, innocence
  • Black. Sophisticated, edgy, mysterious
  • White. Cleanliness, purity, health
  • Gray. Neutral, formal, sophistication

It’s worth mentioning that those are general associations, and the exact meaning can vary depending on the context. The meaning of colors also vary significantly depending on the culture. If you want to learn more about color meaning in different parts of the world, check out the article Symbolism Of Colors And Color Meanings Around The World.

4. Find inspiration

Creating a color scheme can be hard, especially if you’re trying to do it from scratch. To make things simple, search for inspiration. Try to browse imagery to find the one that you like:

  • Photographs of nature. It’s a well-known fact that nature is the best inspiration. So you can take your favorite shot and get color scheme out of it using one of this tool.
  • Videos. Music videos and movies are excellent sources of inspiration for visual designers.

After you find the relevant imagery, you can use a tool called Coolors to pick colors from it.

Forest during the Fall season
Choosing color from a picture

Alternatively, you can visit Dribbble Colors where you can filter designer’s work by color.

Dribbles designer tool to search by color
Dribble makes it easy to search and filter by color. Image by Dribble.

5. Use ready-made color palettes

What to do when you know what colors you need to have in your color scheme but not sure how to select those colors? You can search for ready-made color palettes.

Adobe Color is an excellent tool for both creating and finding color schemes.

Adobe Color tool to find and create color schemes
Adobe Color will help you find the color scheme in a few clicks.

You can also visit Material Design guidelines.

three color swatches from material design
Material design color swatches

5. Consider accessibility

Approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women are affected by some form of color blindness. That’s 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women. While there are multiple forms of the condition, red/green color blindness is the most common. A person suffering from this form of color blindness will generally have trouble seeing variations of both red and green.

Colors as seen with a red-green color deficiency
Color wheel for red-green deficiency

Make sure that the scheme you choose will meet the needs of users with color blindness or color vision deficiency (CVD). Colorblindness takes different forms (including red-green, blue-yellow, and monochromatic), and that’s why it’s important to use multiple visual cues to communicate important states in your product. In addition to color, use elements such as strokes, indicators, patterns, texture, or text to describe actions and content.

Sample diagram demonstrating the need to use symbols and colors
Avoid using red and green colors alone to convey information because this can cause
a bad experience for people who can’t distinguish the red/green characters.

To prevent accessibility issues in design, it’s recommended to experience color blindness yourself while designing. NoCoffee Vision Simulator for Chrome can be used to simulate color-vision deficiencies and low-vision conditions. For example, using the “Color Deficiency” setting “Deuteranopia,” you can view web pages in grayscale. This will help you make your design accessible for users with visual impairments.

NoCoffee vision simulator for Chrome
Screenshot of nocoffee vision

Having a sufficient color contrast is another thing you need to remember when working on your UI. When you’re using colors in text, be aware that placing two colors with low-value contrast next to each other can make your copy very difficult to read.

Color contrast text from low to high
Color contrast in text

Form a habit of checking contrasts to ensure that background and foreground colors appear with enough contrast to a color-blind person, or someone with low vision. It’s not that hard, all you need to do is to check the contrast ratio. Contrast ratios represent how different color is from another color (commonly written as 1:1 or 21:1). The higher the difference between the two numbers in the ratio, the greater the difference in relative luminance between the colors. The W3C recommends the following contrast ratios for body text and image text:

  • Small text should have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 against its background.
  • Large text (at 14 pt bold/18 pt regular and up) should have a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 against its background.

And the great news is that you don’t have to check the contrast ratio manually. You can use the tool like Color Contrast Checker to check your color combinations in just a few clicks.

Conclusion

Color is an extremely powerful tool in a designer’s toolbox, but it’s also a tricky tool to master. I hope the rules mentioned above will help you find the right color scheme. Now it’s time to try those rules on practice. Remember that the best way to become great at color schemes is to actually create them.