UX and Color Theory: A Guide for the Novice and Knowledgeable

Line of rainbow watercolor paint strokes

While both concepts of UX (user experience) and color theory are quite broad as far as scope and complexity, we hope to offer nuanced, yet actionable, information to make the web a better place!

In order to understand how these two topics relate and how to apply them, some explanation of both components is in order. 

What on Earth is Color Theory?

While likely familiar to designers (web and otherwise), color theory is a concept that can subtly and not so subtly influence everyday life. 

Definition: Color theory is both the science and art of using color. It explains how humans perceive color; and the visual effects of how colors mix, match, or contrast with each other. Color theory also involves the messages colors communicate, and the methods used to replicate color.

In color theory, colors are organized on the color wheel and grouped into three categories: primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.

Sir Isaac Newton developed the first color wheel in 1666, and today artists and designers still use it to develop optimal color combinations.

In its most basic breakdown, the color wheel consists of three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors.

  • Primary: Red, Yellow, Blue
  • Secondary: Green, Orange, Purple (colors created by mixing when primary colors)
  • Tertiary: 6 colors made from combining either primary and secondary colors 
    • Such as blue-green or red-violet

Additionally, there are ways to divide the color wheel down to make it even more nuanced and helpful for designers referenced in the diagram below.

image of color wheels and Color theory psychology

Color Properties

Though to the average designer or entrepreneur working on a website, such in-depth color schemes may not be necessary. What’s likely more helpful, though, are color properties. Color properties are the manner and/or degree that color is implemented on a site. They are: 

  • Hue – How it appears (e.g., “is green”).
  • Chroma – How pure it is: i.e., if it has shades (black added), tints (white added), or tones (grey added).
  • Tint: When white is added to a hue. For example, red + white = pink. 
  • Shade: When black is added to a hue. For example, red + black = burgundy. 
  • Tone: When grey is added to a hue. Doing this darkens the original hue while making the color appear more subtle and less intense.
  • Saturation: the dominance of the hue.
    • Pure colors are are hues that are fully saturated (100%). 
  • Value/Lightness: shows the overall intensity. It is the only component of color that may exist by itself. Lightness is measured as a percentage: 0% is black, 100% is white.

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UX — The Long and the Short Of It 

The short of it: the overall feel of the website.

The long of it: UX design is the process of creating products (digital or physical) that are practical and usable. Below are a few characteristics that are critical and often necessary for a good user experience:

  • Usable: A product needs to be simple, easy to use, and familiar.
  • Useful: A product must fill a need. If the product isn’t filling a perceived gap in the users’ lives, then there is no real reason for them to use it.
  • Desirable: The visual aesthetics of the product need to be attractive and evoke positive emotions.
  • Findable: If the user has a problem with a product, they should be able to quickly find a solution.
  • Accessible: The product or service needs to be accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities.
  • Credible: The company and its products need to be trustworthy.

Now, knowing that UX is basically a conglomeration of activities that seek to optimize something, and color theory being the science and art of using color (or color combinations) to communicate different messages, it’s time to talk about some of the things that colors can portray. 

Combining UX and Color Theory: Color Psychology, Meanings, and Accessibility

When selecting a UX color palette for your site, typically the thought process revolves around how things will look. Still, it’s equally important to think about how they feel since color has a powerful psychological influence on the human brain. Each color represents different meanings and emotions for users.

In fact, people decide whether or not they like a product in 90 seconds or less, and 90% of that decision is based solely on color.

Though when it comes to using colors, it’s important to note that color characteristics can vary from culture to culture, or even person to person based on life experience or other factors, so it’s critical to know the target audience of the website. 

So knowing that there aren’t any universally acceptable meanings, here are some general feelings that colors evoke for most people:

  • Red: danger, importance, love. The color red is the color of energy.
    • An excellent color for grabbing a visitor’s attention; try using it to highlight critical elements on your page.
  • Orange: energy, optimism, fun. Orange has a positive, energetic vibe.
  • Also can be associated with inexpensive products.
  • A good color for e-commerce stores if you want to highlight the best price.
  • Yellow: happiness, attention, warmth. Yellow denotes a sunny disposition.
  • When combined with black, it will quickly command attention. 
  • Green: growth, success, nature. Green is fantastic for products that are close to nature. 
    • It’s popular to use in user interfaces since it gives users a signal that an operation has been successfully completed.
  • Blue: trust, comfort, calmness. Blue represents relaxation and comfort. 
    • Brands love this color because it gives customers an impression of inner security.
  • Purple: luxury, creativity, wisdom. Purple is usually linked to royalty as well as luxury products.
  • Black: power, sophistication, mystery. 
    • Most brands limit black to text and accents due to its intensity. 
      • As a primary color, black may be prominent on fashion websites to convey a feeling of luxury.
  • White: cleanliness, health, innocence. White usually makes us think of health and cleanliness. 
    • Designers typically choose this color to suggest a product’s safety, especially for medical equipment and high-tech products.

In addition to the feelings that specific colors emote, color can make the website easier to access for everyone, disability or not.

Here are a few pertinent categories to consider when planning the colors for a site:

Blindness Awareness

Different forms of color blindness affect about 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women. People with red/green blindness have trouble distinguishing reds, greens, and yellows with similar values. For this reason, designers should use special tools to check the website’s functionality, such as the color blindness simulator for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

The Impact of Color Combinations on Readability

Each color has a value based on its color wheel location, determining how well it works with other colors. Overlaying colors at opposite ends of the color wheel can make reading easier, especially for users reading something from a phone screen in bright light. Conversely, placing text above backgrounds with similar color values can complicate reading. 

Colors in Microinteractions

Microinteractions are the minute interactions users hardly notice until they happen. Include interactions such as ‘hover’ and active states in the design of a website or mobile app. For example, by changing the saturation level of the button’s basic color and making it more transparent or, on the contrary, bright, designers make the app more interactive and intuitive to use.

Conclusion

Color is one of the most powerful tools for visual communication. It stimulates all senses by delivering messages instantly. It also has the ability to influence emotions, mood, and behavior—which is why it’s so important for designers to select colors carefully. 

In the end, it’s important to know that it’s not enough only to have a website that appeals to consumers’ buying sense. In fact, having a design that accurately illustrates one’s brand, message, and product truthfully and effectively in a way that is accessible and helpful is the key to UX success.

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