How to choose a colour theme for effective graphic design

Choose a colour theme

An effective graphic design is not just about the shapes. It is also about choosing the right colour theme. Different colours convey different moods & emotions. So how do you choose a colour theme that best suits your design? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Psychology & symbolism

Different colours symbolise different emotions, based on popular beliefs and cultures. But there are some generally accepted colour association like red stands for danger while green is for safety. Of course, your creativity & experience will guide you to choose a colour theme. But it helps to keep in mind these associations. This is the reason that green is mostly used for nature, youth & money, but red is used to highlight caution or things that need attention. Dark blue is generally used to signify dependability & safety, while pink & light purple stand for femininity. But dark purple is for luxury. It may also help to go back to basics of primary, secondary & tertiary colours to find the most suitable colour scheme for your design.

Who is your target audience?

Who will see your ad will also help you choose a colour theme. In fact, you may create two versions of the same design with different colour themes so that you can attract people across geographies & cultures. For example, in the West red stands for passion, danger or risk. So you may want to use it for designs related to social awareness or love stories. But, in South Asian countries red represents wealth. So your designs about festivities & prosperity can use a lot of red. Always ask about the demographics (age, gender, cultures, etc.) before you start designing. After all, you don’t want to choose a colour theme that can be misinterpreted or offends.

Go back to the brief

When at complete loss, go back to the source material & brief. Often you will discover the company logo or some other branding. This will also help you choose a colour theme. After all, McDonald’s is always recognised by the big yellow M against the red background. And it is best to stick to variations of these colours for better brand recall & impact. But that does not mean that everything related to them should be washed in red & yellow. Use these colours as the starting point, and explore options till you find the right colours.

Choose a colour theme

Don’t make a rainbow, unless you are making a rainbow

Colour, like everything else, should be used in moderation. You may be tempted to use a lot of colours. But choose a colour theme that make best impact. It is always suggested to have one dominating colour, with another one or two colour to complement it. If at all you need to use more colours, make sure that they are used only where required & do not overshadow everything else.

Shades & tints

An effective way to choose a colour theme is to use a dominating colour, and base any other colours on shades or tints of the main colour. This can easily be achieved by adding black (for a shade) or white (for a tint) to the main colour. This will make the whole design appear as one without looking boring. In this case, use a different colour only for areas that need to stand out.

Rules are meant to be broken

On occasions it may be best to not stick to the rules. Once you have understood the basics, there is no harm in experimenting to create something eye-catching. Go all out! Use colours that would usually not be used together. Find a unique signature for your design. Sometimes shocking is the way to go.

Choose a colour theme

Additional help

Here are few software that will help you experiment & find the best colours.

Adobe Kuler

This is possibly the best known colour theme tool on the internet. Adobe Kuler generates an entire colour theme from a single base colour. All you have to do is to upload a photo to extract colours from it. You can even store or share your colour themes for later use. The tool also offers direct integration with the Creative Suite apps and downloadable colour palettes.

Colors on the Web

Whether you work for web design (RGB) or for print (CMYK), Colors on the Web will serve your purpose. The tool provides colour theme outputs based on different mathematical equations, similar to Kuler.


Similar to Kuler in many ways, this software provides a 3D visualisation of the colour wheels. It can also generate more than five colours in a single theme. ColoRotate can also be integrated into Creative Suite apps.


This is one of the most popular online colour theme generators because it allows you to create palettes with up to 20 different colours. So if you often work with multiple colours then this is the tool for you.

It’s time you get back to that drawing board and show your true colours.



  1. Wonderful Post Nilofer Sen..!! Thank you for posting it.

    I agree because choosing a colour theme effectively is key to the success of a design.

    1. admin says:

      Thank you for your kind words. Keep following the blog for more interesting stuff.

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