The Power of Color

This chapter includes information about:

  • Color theory and harmonious color combinations
  • Vocabulary about variations in colors
  • The relativity and context of color meanings

Would we view historic photographs differently if they were in color? Artist Dana Keller strongly believes the answer is yes. He uses Photoshop to add color to historic photos — often after significant research for historic accuracy — with the goal of making images from the past feel less distant. The following video shows his process with examples, and you can also view images on his website.

Color is a powerful element in graphic design and visual storytelling. Choices about color can aid or hinder the message you are communicating, or change that message entirely.

In the book Graphic Design: The New Basics, authors Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips write:

“Color can convey a mood, describe reality, or codify information. Words like ‘gloomy,’ ‘drab,’ and ‘glittering’ each bring to mind a general climate of colors, a palette of relationships. Designers use color to make some things stand out (warning signs) and to make other things disappear (camouflage). Color serves to differentiate and connect, to highlight and to hide.”

Cold and isolated, or warm and inviting? Color changes the way we perceive visual content. (Original image from Pixabay)

Color Theory

Anyone who mixed paints as a child has likely been introduced to the color wheel, which is the foundation of color theory. The primary colors of red, blue and yellow can be mixed to create the secondary colors of orange, violet and green.

Visual harmony is achieved with complementary colors from opposite sides of the color wheel, or analogous colors that fit beside each other on the color wheel.

The traditional colors we see on a color wheel refer to the hue, meaning the spectrum of visible light.


The way we perceive colors is also affected by the value, meaning the degree of lightness or darkness. A lighter value (more white) is a tint, and a darker value (more black) is a shade.


Intensity refers to the purity of a color, or what we may think of as its brightness. This is often described or adjusted using saturation, with a fully saturated color having the greatest intensity.


The way we perceive colors is strongly affected by what surrounds them. Optical illusions play with the way our perceptions are shaped by visual context.

In these boxes, each set of inner shapes is the same color. The surrounding context makes them appear different.

Meaning of Colors

Colors are often regarded as having meanings or associations, but these are not fixed meanings inherent to the color. Associations with colors are cultural and relative.

For example, green is associated with growth, renewal and hope, but is also symbolic of envy. It is an important color in Islam, which is why it is used in many nations’ flags. In corporate logos and consumer products, it is used to symbolize that something is “eco-friendly” or related to the environment.

In American politics, colors are commonly used to differentiate the two biggest parties, with red representing Republicans and blue representing Democrats. This is so prevalent that the phrases “red states” and “blue states” are used to describe the way a state usually votes. However, did you know this color association has only been around since the 2000 election?

Similarly, dressing a baby in pink today typically signifies that the baby is a girl. However, baby girls and boys were dressed identically until the 20th century, and in 1918 a children’s fashion magazine recommended pink for boys as a more masculine pastel derived from red. The association of pink with baby girls and blue with baby boys was not common until after World War II, and did not become firmly established until the 1980s.

Color has been used to stereotype and marginalize people, both in systemic and symbolic ways. In 1962, responding to the growing civil rights movement, Crayola changed the name of its “flesh” crayon to “peach” to acknowledge the wide range of skin tones. Graphic designers must be sensitive and cautious about how to use color without perpetuating stereotypes.

Photo by Nathan Gibbs via Flickr
Photo by Nathan Gibbs via Flickr

The following video explains how film photography was inherently biased toward lighter skin, and how this still affects some digital images today:

In the use of color, it is important to think from your audience’s perspective and be aware of cultural expectations and implications.