When it comes to perceiving colour, a designer’s sight is fourfold. In our world, the basic principles of colour use are referred to as The Big Four, and include contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. 

Though they are all equally important for creating stunning visuals, today we’ll focus on the first. 

If you’re taking design 101 because you’re passionate about this unique form of art, our class is now open. If you’re trying to make some sense of it all because there’s nobody more experienced to help you design your business website, consider outsourcing your back-office operations to somebody else. 

Professional design may not be rocket science, but it still asks for time, commitment, and passion. Today’s lesson on colour contrast is only a cheat sheet, but it will hopefully teach you the basics of combining colours in a striking and powerful way. 

Grab your pens, pencils, and crayons, and prepare to take some notes. 


An Introduction to Colour Contrast

In both design and everyday life, contrast is not exclusively tied to colours. There are also contrasts in size, shape, position, or type. In fact, contrast occurs every time when two different elements are placed side by side and perceived as a whole. The more different they are, the bigger the contrast.

Colour contrast is the most recognizable type simply because it’s the most frequently used one. It requires two colours from different segments of the colour wheel. Pairs made of direct opposites like orange and blue guarantee high contrast, so we call them complementary or clashing colours. 


What Are Clashing Colours and How to Use Them?

Besides orange and blue, other examples of clashing colour pairs are yellow and purple or green and red. These are only primary colours, of course, and their nuances create numerous contrasting pairs. These nuances are exactly what separates contrast in design from contrast in colour theory. 

Unlike scientists, designers don’t use only direct opposites and complementary colours in order to achieve contrast. Think about the Coca-Cola logo – though created with white letters against a red background, the eye still perceives it as an effective use of colour contrast and a striking design piece. 



Why and When Is Colour Contrast Effective?

The entire purpose of design is to make visual elements pop, right? It’s both about finding a perfect balance between separate elements and about putting an emphasis on one of them. Effective design uses the psychology of colours to catch the viewer’s attention, direct the eye, and stress what’s important.

Contrast is an incredibly effective tool because it achieves all of these goals by using only two colours, but that still doesn’t mean that designing with contrasts is easy. For instance, green text against a red background isn’t a good choice, even though these two colours are direct opposites on the wheel.


Achieving Contrast with Value 

Intuitive designers know exactly how to use clashing colours in order to grab our attention, but the same effect can be achieved with the use of harmonizing colours. These are purples and reds, for example, or greens and yellows, and any other pair of colours that are located next to each other on the wheel.

They are called adjacent colours, and can help you achieve contrast in value. Though subtle, this type of contrast is very powerful because it allows you to bring two elements of the same colour together, but different shades. If you throw in a third contrasting colour to the mix, the results are impressive.  

In design, colour contrast is more about intuition and feeling than about rules. While clashing colours can sometimes strengthen your idea, other times, they can seriously ruin it. Readability is of utmost importance here, which means that you’ll need to start thinking not in colours, but in nuances.


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