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Color Meaning and Composition in Ad Design

Learn the Color Wheel

Posted on 01, May, 2015

Last Modified on 29, May, 2015

We, as consumers, associate colors with feelings and physical objects. This makes the strategic use of color a very important model for the world of business. Color is a basic element of the marketing used to capture consumers and get them to buy a product. Colors in advertisements provide not only aesthetic appeal but also become a part of the identity of the product or service being advertised - so picking the right color palette is an important element in marketing a product. Graphic advertisements should be creative, challenge consumers to purchase, and evoke emotions. Knowing that the right use of color can help sell products, you can use this article as a guide to help further understand visual language and the meaning behind your color choices in marketing!

Warm Versus Cool

First things first, let’s start with the basics. There are two categories of colors: warm and cool. Warm colors are the brighter tints on the color wheel such as red, orange, and yellow. These tend to invoke happiness and provide a sense of power and energy. These colors are great to use in ads concerned with things like food service and television media - for example, McDonalds uses yellow to create a sense of optimism and Netflix works with red for boldness and excitement.

Picking the Right Color

On the other side of the spectrum are the cool colors which are blue, purple, and green. Consumers tend to equate these colors with honesty, trust, and professionalism (which is why so many app icons contain the color blue). These tones are great for businesses in finance, technology, and the environmental “green” movement. For example, IBM benefits from using blue in their ads to create a sense of trust and dependability between their company and their consumers. Whole Foods fittingly designs with green because of its association with growth and health.

Even though most colors fit into either of these two categories, no two colors share the same reactionary attributes. Also, personal preference, experiences, and context blur the effect that individual colors have on consumers. Even so, each color has its own unique way of evoking emotion characteristically. So, let’s explore that a little deeper.

Colors and Meaning

Yellow Color

Stimulates the mental process, stimulates the nervous system, activates memory, considered to be one of the happiest colors


Color Green

Creates a soothing feeling, mentally and physically relaxing, alleviates anxiety, provides a sense of harmony


Blue Color

Calmness, cool in temperature, promotes productivity, considered to be a trustworthy color


Purple Color

Uplifting, calming, related to spirituality, encourages creativity, combines the stimulation of red and the calmness of blue


Pink Color

Energetic, inspires confidence, considered youthful, fun, and exciting


Red Color

Energetic, inspires action and confidence, protective, draws more attention than any other color


Orange Color

Stimulates activity, increases appetite, inspires social behavior, considered to be the most controversial color


White Color

Promotes clarity, encourages declutter, symbolizes new beginnings and purification, one of the most neutral colors on the spectrum


Color Gray

Sometimes unsettling, tends to create expectations, stressful, long-lasting, refined, sleek, considered to be the color of intellect


Black Color

Promotes power and authority, sometimes overpowering, can evoke strong emotions, considered to be a restful color

Each color affects us differently, and every color will mean something different to every person that sees it. Although colors broadly align with these certain traits listed above, colors are dependent on personal consumer experiences. However, it is important to choose color based on the type of personality you want to portray. As a businessperson, it is your job to find the right color for the task. Make sure to use it in a way that properly reflects your company’s views, messages, products, and services.

Color Models

Getting Reactions from Color Combinations

Primary, secondary, and tertiary models are the three major categories of colors that must be understood in order to create your business's palette using the color wheel.

Everything begins with primary. Primary colors include red, yellow, and blue. These are the colors that exist in nature biologically - they are the product of our physiological response to light. The human eye uses cone cells to receive what we perceive of as colors, which are really just light and wavelengths. The three dimensional impression of these wavelengths that we receive can be modeled as a mixture of the three primary colors.

By mixing these three primary colors together we can make secondary colors. Because color is defined by wavelengths, we also call this category “additive color” because we are essentially “adding” light. Secondary Color Combinations These colors include orange, green, and purple. In effect:

  • If we mix red & yellow, we make orange
  • If we mix yellow & blue, we make green
  • If we mix blue & red, we make purple

The third model is tertiary color. These colors are made by mixing both primary and secondary colors together. There are six total colors made from these combinations: Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, Red-Violet, & Red-Orange.

Color Pallets

From here, we can dig even deeper into the anatomy of the color swatch. With different hues, tints, shades, and tones, millions of different colors are born. Darkening, lightening, and other modifications can create unique swatches for any purpose.

But, what does that mean for your ads? We need to use this information to make your color palette. So, what colors work well together?

Anatomy of the Color Wheel & Color Combinations

Color Wheel

There are three simple rules for combining colors based on the color wheel.

  1. Complimentary
    • If you choose a color on the color wheel and draw a straight line across to the other side, those two colors are complementary. They sit directly across from each other.
    • Designers use complementary colors when they want to exaggerate a contrast because of the polar opposite nature of this combination.
  2. Analogous
    • If you choose a color on the color wheel and pick the two colors sitting on either side of that color, those three colors are analogous.
    • These colors are often found in nature and are considered to be very pleasing to the eye. Also, they almost always match well with one another which creates a sense of serenity in the design.
  3. Triad
    • If you choose a color on the color wheel and draw two lines exactly 120° apart (an equilateral triangle), those three colors are triadic.
    • This color combination is considered the best method for creating a harmonious design. With this method, designers often use one color as the primary background, and accent different areas with the two others for highlighting.

There is no right or wrong answer in picking your color palette using any of these color combinations. Color Pallets Studies have found that the relationship between color and the product that it is advertising is based on the perceived appropriateness of the color being used - or, in other words, does the color “fit” what it’s selling? Keep in mind that although each color has a fundamental meaning behind it, you should base your palette on the nature of the product and how you want your company’s overall personality to be perceived. Natural Color Pallets When it comes down to picking the “right” color, research has found that predicting consumer reaction to color appropriateness in relation to the product or service itself is far more important than just the individual colors. Depending on your business strategy, your message, your values, your products, and your services, different color palettes will be more appropriate than others to create the perfect advertisement.

Design In-House

What’s great about today’s entrepreneurial spirit for creating in-house campaigns is that there are now so many different resources at our fingertips. Handing over loads of cash to graphic designers and advertising companies isn’t viable for many businesses today. Design companies know this, so rather than paying what may be thousands, you can pay pennies for different online programs that help you design your own way at your own dollar.

Adobe Kuler Program

One such company is Adobe. Their Kuler program is a great platform that allows you to create a color palette online using the 3 color combination methods as well as additional shading and hue techniques. Best of all, it’s FREE!

Enhance Your Business in Color!

Color is an important element in design and keeping color in mind while creating advertisements for your company can prove the success of your products or services! So, now that you have the theory behind the important design element, you can take your first steps in creating that perfect advertisement!