Understanding Color Theory

Author: Shoshana Burgett,

Any designer, marketer, or creative director will all tell you color is a critical design element. Designers, brand owners, product managers, and marketers recognize that identifying the right color can mean the difference between a product that is grabbed off the shelf or one that sits on the discount shelf collecting dust. The right color makes a product or design pop; it pulls the consumer in. Color creates a feeling or mood. But selecting the right color can be stressful and getting that color to produce as expected can be even more stressful.


Selecting the right color involves understanding trends, consumer behaviors, market requirements, and psychology of color. Getting color right in production begins with understanding the science of color and having a basic knowledge of color theory. Understanding color perception, color systems, the role light plays on color and why measuring color is the most cost-effective and exact way to get color right.  This way your product designs, packaging, and even marketing campaigns can be executed the way you envision.


Color theory begins with speaking the language color, understanding the evolution of color systems such as Munsell, Pantone, CSI, and others. If you are not speaking the same color language as your supplier, then miscommunications are expected.  It’s like asking someone to understand French if they only speak Russian. A friend shared a video with me years ago. Luscious is a spoof around color communication failures when clients use descriptive and emotions as a language to describe color.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of using adjectives… bold, soft, deep, radiant, creamy, luscious, etc.  But these words convey a feeling, not a color, and adjectives are of no use to a supplier looking to formulate inks, pigments, dyes, or paints.  To complicate things further, products are often manufactured at multiple sites, and regions. Each region will have different pigments, colorants, and even material.  Understanding how to speak color is essential when sending a design, tech pack, or build of materials (BOM) to any supplier.

Camp Chroma is a deep dive into color theory in a language designers understandCamp Chroma is a deep dive into color theory in a language designers understand

Creatives pigeonhole and devalue themselves when they use adjectives to describe color. A designer who understands color tolerances, and how to communicate colors with lab values or better spectral values is going to be more successful in both achieving their color, but also maintaining their costs and keeping to their timelines.  It may seem technical, but it is not complicated; what’s more, this knowledge will enhance your relationship with suppliers and procurement teams.  Different measurement technologies and tolerances are used depending on the product/application/material or substrate.  The ability to speak about tolerances, measurements, and establishing standard operating procedures around color will simplify the color approval process and gain respect from other departments.

So where to start.

Luckily there are a number of color theory resources available and some are free.  Here are a few of our favorite resources.

Color Theory Resources

X-Rite is offering their Color Training Class for Free (limited time only)
udemy coerces

X-Rite’s Color Theory On-demand Class (free for a limited time) – What is great about this module class, is you go at your pace.  X-Rite’s 6-modules cover everything from the physics of color; the role of lighting, spectrophotometers, and color information; and how to view color.  It covers RGB, CMYK, spot colors, and even new color technologies like extended gamut, that help lower costs and still achieve those bright Pantone colors. This class is available in 10 languages, including English, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and Japanese.  What’s also nice about this course, is the certificate of completion to share with your boss, add to a resume or post as an accomplishment on LinkedIn.  (In full disclosure, I used to work for X-Rite and Pantone and am very familiar with this online class.)

Camp Chroma – is a paid course, by Lori Sawaya. At Pantone I would speak and refer to the ‘DNA of a color’ and Lori is no different in that explanation. Lori is a Color Strategist and has created her unique Colorography charts that can be purchased and downloaded to print at home. Her class Four Pillars of Color is an online paid course. At $897 it is not cheap, but at 16-hours of material, it provides the most depth on color. Lori’s approach is unique; she seems to put color theory in a safe space for creatives to understand, demystifying the technology. Lori uses Munsell notation and compliments them with her own Colorography toolset. Each attendee is posted a course kit with samples to interact with, exercises and quizzes.  Lori is dedicated to her students, managing her private Facebook Group, where she is dedicated to responding to each one.

Canva –  has a whole page of online classes under the heading of Basic Color Theory. These are not really classes but a collection of blogs on color that Canva has published throughout the year. Topics like How to How to choose a color palette for your brand, and An Easy Guide to Color Combos are all quick and easy reads.

Udemy –  a leader in online courses, offers Color Theory Basics: Learning Color Theory With Adobe Color. At 1-hour, it is succinct, focusing on basic color theory, color grouping, along with basics on the psychology of color. Normally at $19.99, we found it on sale for a limited time at $9.95.

Allison –  is an on-line learning platform with over 15 million subscribers and offers a similar course. Colour Theory for Artists and Designers also provides certification of completion and can be completed in 3-4 hours. This online course discusses the dimensions of color and the approach is more from an artist’s lens. It goes through additive and subtractive colors with some interactive graphics for the reader to visually show how color shifts. It is a bit text-heavy in a few areas, but interactive tools are nice visuals. Be forewarned, this class requires Adobe Flash, which is known to have security issues, so make sure you turn Flash off when you are done.

Related Posts