An Introduction to Color Theory for Web Designers

If you’re new to the world of web development and you’re just beginning to work with WordPress themes for the first time, you’re in good company. One of the handiest features of working with a customizable theme is the ability to tweak its appearance to suit your needs – but this also means you need to pay attention to certain design elements, including color.

Starting to Think About Color

Within a design, each color has a unique purpose and meaning, and the meaning changes depending on context. Cultural differences can majorly impact certain details as well. A good way to start thinking about color is to pretend you’re painting a property you plan to show.

Prospective renters or buyers will probably be turned off by a “quirky” color combination like fuchsia and lime green, but stark white walls can be equally off-putting. The key to harmonious color – whether you’re designing a website or painting a house – is balance.

Choosing Individual Colors

In order to get a sense of the relationship between colors, it’s important to think about what each individual color brings to the table. Each color carries different associations, influencing your reader’s emotions in a particular way.

  • Red is charged with power and energy.
  • Orange is energetic but still friendly.
  • Yellow is imbued with happiness and enthusiasm.
  • Green is a color of stability, implying financial expertise or environmentalism.
  • Blue is a calming color that can also mark reliability.
  • Purple is luxurious, decadent, and regal.
  • Black promotes edginess and sophistication.
  • White is clean and simple. It’s often used in minimalist design.
  • Gray is neutral, professional, and modern.

Each color has any number of variants and an even larger number of potential combinations. Let’s break this down a little.

Principles of Color Theory

Color theory is a topic of study all on its own. It’s a language for talking about art and design – which is why it’s important to know the basics. Three tenets of color theory web designers should know are complementation, contrast, and vibrancy.

  • Complementation refers to how colors look in relation to one another. You may have heard the phrase “complementary” to refer to a pair of “opposite” colors like red/green or blue/orange, but that’s only one type of combination. Unlike complementary colors, “analogous” colors sit right next to each other on a color wheel, creating combinations like yellow/orange and blue/violet.
  • Contrast refers to how well the colors are divided on the page. Black text on a white page – or white text on a black page – exemplifies high contrast, because the two elements are opposites. Without contrast, visitors will have a hard time navigating and understanding your website, even if the content is excellent. For example, very light blue text on a white background will likely cause eyestrain.
  • Vibrancy also called saturation – refers to the brightness of a color, which in turn prescribes the emotion of your web design. Bright, saturated colors are richer and often darker. These “feel” more energetic, while duller, less saturated colors “feel” more relaxed and tend to fade into the background.

How It All Works Together

These three elements go hand in hand. For example, not all complementary colors are contrasting enough to make your text readable – especially if both the text and the background have a similar level of brightness. When in doubt, use a lighter color for the background and very dark color for the text. Make sure the background is desaturated enough, or you’ll risk causing eyestrain and deterring potential readers.

Final Thoughts

No one expects you to be Leonardo Da Vinci, but it’s helpful to have a general understanding of how colors work – and how they work together. It all depends on creating the right combination of vibrancy, complementation, and contrast.