UI Design

Complete Guide to Color in UX/UI

Color in UX/UI design serves as one of the main elements. It can either make or break your design. If you know how to use and implement it correctly, you can emphasize your product’s brand and message and ease the process of reaching objectives for your users.

In this article, you’ll learn everything about color – from hues to shades, harmonies and color psychologies, so buckle up and keep reading!

Woman with the color palette in one hand, and the other hand is full of colorful paintings.

Color theory

Color is the ultimate tool for communicating different information to particular groups; it can serve as a mood indicator, a visual representation of a brand, or in your case, as a UX/UI designer, as a consistency system. Before teaching you the importance of color in UX/UI Design, let’s dive into its theory and terminology!

Hue is the main property of color. It represents pure color without tints and shades through a 360-degree color wheel. 

Saturation is the intensity of a color. When you increase the saturation of a particular color, it will appear more intense, vibrant, and rich. In contrast, when you decrease the saturation, it will become paler until you turn it gray. 

Brightness is the illumination level of color in UX/UI design. By increasing brightness, the color appears more illuminated, whereas lowering brightness makes the color turn darker and eventually black. If the saturation is at 0, you can also get a pure white.

You get a tint of color when you mix your color with white and make it brighter. This process affects the color’s relative saturation; you decrease the colorfulness, but the hue remains unchanged. 

A Tone is mixing a color with gray or tinting and shading simultaneously. 

Shade is what you get when mixing color with black or making it darker. The shading process affects the saturation, the hue stays the same, and the colorfulness minimizes. 

Luminosity shows us a hue’s level of perceived brightness or darkness. We measure luminosity in percentages from 0-100% and perceive yellow as the brightest and blue as the darkest hue. You can note color in UX/UI design in several different ways. Some of the most familiar ways are HEX, RGB, and CMYK.

HEX (or hexadecimal color) is a six-character combination of numbers and letters defined by its mix of Red, Green and Blue. The HEX code starts with # and six hex values or three hex pairs. Each pair represents one of the additive colors (red, green, and blue). Since red, green, and blue values range from 0 to 255, along with 256 values for each color component, you get 256x256x256 possible combinations. In hex, they range from #000000, pure black, to #FFFFFF, a HEX code for pure white.

RGB is another model of color in UX/UI design – an additive color technique that uses light to mix colors. Most of our digital screens are RGB – they use red, green, and blue light to produce all the colors we see. The values of red, green and blue colors range from 0 to 255. 

Fun fact: if you mix fully saturated versions of all three primary colors, you’ll get pure white.

CMY(K) is a subtractive color model people mostly use for printing and painting. It uses cyan, magenta, and yellow to produce the colors we see. To create deeper blacks and save costs, you can get unsaturated and dark colors by using black ink instead of a combination of cyan, magenta, and yellow. The “K” in CMYK means “key,” which is black. 

The cyan, magenta, and yellow values range from 0-100%.

Hue, Saturation, and Brightness with 12 different values. Hue ranges from 0° to 360° while saturation and brightness both go from 0-100

If you want some color to appear darker/lighter than its brightness allows it to, you can shift hue a few degrees to a lower/higher point of luminosity

Color harmonies

Color harmony results from good color pairing, which is aesthetically clean and visually pleasing for the human eye. This harmony is what most UX/UI designers want to achieve when designing an interface. Unfortunately, not all designers are born with the ability to effortlessly and flawlessly mix colors in their heads that will complete each other and create a heavenly harmony.

Luckily, we can use schemes to match and mix color in UX/UI design, which can help us reach our design objectives: the monochromatic approach, analogous method, complementary and split complementary technique, and triadic, tetradic and square. 

The monochromatic approach is when you pick your color and start decreasing towards the center of the color wheel to get a nice shading of that particular color. Such combinations can result in a very sophisticated and clean look. 

The analogous method is picking colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel by moving either way within a 90-degree angle. This method of mixing color in UX/UI design can result in a dashing outcome without sacrificing elegance or cleanliness. 

When you want to achieve flair, complementary colors should be your go-to method! Select a base color and add the complementary color from the other side of the wheel, and that’s it! If you want, you can additionally bolster this method by adding monochromatic versions of the complementary color. 

Split complementary colors is a method of adding analogous color instead of monochromatic to your previous complementary color combo!

These four methods of mixing color in UX/UI design will significantly help you when creating a color palette from scratch. 

More experienced designers can sometimes use the triadic method, which is selecting three different hues that have equal space among each other on the color wheel. 

A tetradic scheme of color is when you use two complementary pairs of color that resemble a rectangular shape on the color wheel. Finally, you’ll use four evenly-spaced colors on the color wheel to build a square colour scheme.

Primary and secondary colors

Primary colors should be constant in your interfaces. They include branding or logo colors, colors of elements (such as CTA buttons), highlights, and textual content. 

Secondary colors are colors you should use occasionally and in specific situations, such as success, warning, or error. These colors should consist of accents based on your previously determined primary colors. You can produce these secondary colors by hand-picking, darkening or lightening by HSL %, or both.

Selecting color in UX/UI design isn’t always the most straightforward task, but don’t let that scare you. If you work in Figma, you can use one of the best Figma plugins to expand your color wheel – Color Shades Kit. If not, work to discover handy tools such as Coolors or Eva Design System.

Showcasing randomly generated color palettes

Coolors: Get inspired by thousands of beautiful color schemes

Picking different primary colors and getting the rest of the palette generated

Eva Design System: Deep learning color generator

Warm and Cool colors

As you might already know, there are warm and cool colors.

Warm colors are hues like pink, red, orange, and yellow. UI designers love warm colors because they are stimulating and tend to stand out more in user interfaces. They also radiate feelings of positivity. Warm colors also make things seem bigger, open, and more inviting. That’s why it’s best to use warm color in UX/UI projects where you need to convey the message of joy, happiness or energy. 

Cool colors are hues like green, cyan, blue, and purple. 

The feelings they evoke are relaxation, serenity, and calmness. They remind us of the sky, water, nature, and space. 

“Blue mountains are distant from us, and so cool colors seem to recede,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German writer and color theorist); maybe that’s why cool colors tend to fade into the background in interfaces. 

Warm colors are popular in design because of their positive vibes, and cool colors calm us down, but if you use them too much, they can become overwhelming. Too much red can become alarming, and too much blue can miss out on conveying the message of excitement. Explore your options, combine them with neutral colors, and experiment. That way, you’ll find the perfect ratio of warm or cool color in UX/UI design.

Color wheel with warm colors in focus. Warm colors are pink, red, orange, yellow
Color wheel with cool colors in focus. Cool colors are green, cyan, blue, and purple

Color Accessibility

Accessibility in UX/UI design is creating a digital product that includes all your users’ needs, including those with visual, motor, speech, cognitive, or auditory disabilities and more. 

Color accessibility is an additional effort that furtherly helps users with visual impairments or color blindness and other deficiencies to interact with your product and achieve their goals the same way as non-visually-impaired users. 

So how to design with color accessibility in mind?

The answers are simple:

  • Ensure the right amount of contrast: your background-to-text contrast ratio should be at least 4.5:1. So, when you’ll design buttons, cards, or navigation elements, be sure to check the contrast ratio of your colors
  • Don’t rely on colors only: using color in UX/UI design is beneficial, but you must ensure there are other essential elements, such as adequate messaging and icons, that will alert the user and convey the message even without color
  • Add focus state contrast: Focus states help users navigate through your product with a keyboard by giving them a visual indicator around elements. These states are beyond helpful for users with visual impairments but also for those with motor disabilities

Color psychology

Color psychology shows us how color in UX/UI design can influence human behavior and affect decision-making. You probably already know that different colors, hues, and tones can have different connotations. Color psychology can also vary depending on the users’ personal choices and culture. It’s not a newsflash that marketers deliberately use colors to influence their buyers. Hence, as a UX/UI designer, your task is to achieve a similar goal – to convey your brand or product’s message and make it resonate with its target audience.

Let’s talk about specific colors and their psychological backgrounds.

Red is a bold, passionate and energetic color. The red color can evoke positive emotions: energy, power, excitement, love, vigor, and life. But, it can also produce negative emotions, such as anger, pain, warning, danger, or urgency. Psychologists also claim red color makes people hungry!

Some experts claim that blue is the world’s favorite color. You are probably familiar with many brands that use blue colors for their brandings, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Zoom. 

Blue color radiates trust, security, logic, calmness, and loyalty. But it can also have negative connotations, such as coldness and emotionlessness, so you must be 100% sure what message you want to convey when using such color in UX/UI design. 

The green color is the color of life. It reminds us of nature – forests and grass, which we can connect with health, relaxation, freshness, and growth in our minds. HelloFresh and Whole Foods use green to express the freshness of their product, whereas Greenpeace uses it to make a connection with the environment. But, using green can sometimes turn out bland.

When using the yellow color in UX/UI design, you probably want to express optimism, happiness, and youthfulness. It’s the color we connect with the sun, smiley faces, and many flowers. It evokes warmth and optimism but can also stimulate anxiety, fear, and irrationality in some situations. Some brands that use yellow are Snapchat, Mcdonald’s, and MailChimp.

And finally, let’s talk about black. Black is one of the most popular options when you need to communicate the image of sophistication, elegance and power. Many fashion companies like Chanel or Nike use black to look refined and clean. But, the same as it exudes power, black can also feel authoritative, cold, and sometimes even evil. Moreover, black resembles death in some cultures; that’s why you won’t see it in the health industry.

Summary

If you’ve come this far, you’re safe to say you now know a lot about color in UX/UI design! Even though the color is an inexhaustible subject, we hope this guide helped you grasp the basics of its theory and psychology. From here, you have a more-than-solid base of knowledge, which will help you start producing color harmonies that will benefit you, your product, and the people who use it. 

If picking the right colors for a project still sounds a bit unclear, and you wish for a way to polish it up, join the waitlist for our UI Colors Video Course! This thorough video course will help you transform your design career forever. By joining the waitlist, you’ll secure the lowest price and get notified about presale and early-bird discounts.

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