Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Color Scheme

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_229



An organized selection and arrangement of colors in design.

Introduction and Classification of Color Schemes

Colors from the color circle are usually combined in a systematic and logical manner to create a color scheme. The number of colors (different hues, saturations and lightnesses) in a scheme could range from two to many. A very basic color scheme would be to use black text on a white background, a common default color scheme in Web design.

A predetermined design idea about the final appearance of two-dimensional designs or products or the ambiance or atmosphere in interiors usually shapes the systematic or logic behind combining different colors into establishing a color scheme. Creating style and appeal, evoking intended feelings (such as in an ambiance), and establishing more practical outcomes all are concerns while deciding on a color scheme.

Different types of schemes are used. These are predominantly based on the selection of colors that are regarded as being harmonious, in other words are aesthetically pleasing when viewed together. This can either be achieved with similarities or with contrasts [1, 2]. As color has three dimensions, namely, hue, saturation, and lightness, color schemes might use colors with similar hues, saturations, or lightnesses, as well as colors with contrasting hues, saturations, or lightnesses.

Color Schemes Using Harmony of Similarities

These schemes use similarity of hues (namely, monochromatic and analogous color schemes), similarity of saturations, or similarity of lightnesses. Monochromatic color schemes use a single hue and obtain a variety of colors with variations in that single hue’s saturation and/or lightness levels. For example, in a room, a monochromatic color scheme may use only a certain blue with all its varying lightnesses and darknesses (lightness level) or its paler and vivid (saturation level) versions. Analogous color schemes use neighboring hues in a color circle [3]. The hues chosen in this scheme may incorporate secondary hues (hues that can be produced by adding two primary hues) such as using green, yellow-green, and yellow together. There are also warm or cool color schemes. These schemes either use all warm hues (e.g., red, orange, yellow) or all cool hues (e.g., blue and green) together.

Schemes using similarity of lightnesses combine different hues with similar lightness levels. For instance, they use only light colors together or only dark colors together. Similarities of saturations might also be used where only weak colors or only pure, vivid colors are combined together. In achromatic color schemes, only achromatic colors (black, white, and grays) are used. In this case if the design or space becomes monotonous, sometimes an accent color is added to these schemes, such as a red or a yellow.

Color Schemes Using Harmony of Contrasts

These schemes use contrasts of hues, contrasts of saturations, or contrasts of lightnesses [4]. Schemes with contrasting hues use opposite hues on the color circle. There are different complementary contrast color schemes depending on the desired number of hues to be used, namely, complementary contrast color schemes (two hues), split-complementary color schemes (three hues), double-complementary color schemes (four hues), etc. Complementary contrast color schemes use two opposing hues on the color wheel, for example, purple and yellow or red and green. These two hues can be used in the design with their many varying lightnesses or saturations. The name complementary contrast derives from afterimage complementaries, where the human visual system tries to compensate the overexposure of a certain hue with its opposing hue in the visual system [5]. When one looks at red for a few minutes, where red is the one and only thing in that person’s visual field, and then that person looks at a white surface, that person will see an afterimage of the opposing hue (a light green) on that white surface. Split-complementary color schemes use not the direct opposite hue of a selected hue, but its immediate two neighbors. For example, blue will be used not with its exact opposite orange, but its two immediate neighbors which are yellow-orange and red-orange. Double-complementary color schemes use four hues, mainly two hues next to each other and their direct opposites on the color circle. Thus, yellow and yellow-orange are used together with purple and purple-blue. Triadic color schemes use hues that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, thus having equal number of hues in between them, such as using green, orange, and purple in a design.

Schemes using contrast of lightnesses use light and dark colors together, and schemes using contrast of saturations use weak and strong colors together. It is also possible to create a color scheme by using achromatic and chromatic colors together.

As there are many colors that human beings can see which can come together in many different combinations as described earlier, the initial intent of the design or the design idea becomes prominent before deciding on the color scheme. The color scheme is chosen usually to best reflect the design intent or the design idea. This design intent or idea may vary from being fully functional to purely aesthetic. Some common design intentions are evoking an emotion, hiding from vision (camouflage), making something visible, or coding. If the design intent is to evoke an emotion, for example, creating a calming ambiance, and the design idea is connotations with nature, the color scheme for a place might use similarity of lightnesses and saturations, with hues such as brown, green, and blue. If the design intent is to make things visible, for example, for visually impaired people, then the designer should not use schemes with similar lightnesses. In this case, using dark blue (navy), dark red, and black together would not make the design visible for visually impaired or elderly people.

A color scheme is a selection and arrangement of colors in an organized manner. The selection of a certain color scheme over another one purely depends on the design intent and the design idea of a product or space.



  1. 1.
    Chevreul, M.E.: The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors. Schiffer, West Chester (1987)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Birren, F.: Principles of Color. Van Nostrand Reinhold, West Chester (1987)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Itten, J.: The Elements of Color. In: Birren, F. (ed.). (trans: Van Hagen, E.). Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York (1970)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Itten, J.: Design and Form. Thames and Hudson, London (1987)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Kuehni, R.G.: Color: Essence and Logic. Van Nostrand Reinhold, Berkshire (1983)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Interior Architecture and Environmental Design, Faculty of Art, Design and ArchitectureBilkent UniversityAnkaraTurkey