Color is one of the most powerful allies a designer has. It can work toward a number of different goals, such as reinforcing or highlighting an idea, provoking emotional responses from users, or drawing their attention to specific parts of a website or app. All this in addition to simply making your product aesthetically pleasing.

Colors are undoubtedly one of the building blocks of any user interface design. Choosing an appropriate and successful color scheme may seem like something of a difficult task, especially if you are not that knowledgeable about design and colors, but the reality is it is not really rocket science and nowadays there are many online resources which can help with tasks like this.

The different types of UI colors

A UI’s color scheme is all about combining different colors. Almost every color scheme includes these color groups:

  • primary and secondary colors

These are the UI’s base colors and are used most frequently throughout the interface. The primary color is typically the brand color and as a rule of thumb, you should have no more than three primary colors in your UI.

You can also create a secondary color set. While these are optional, they can offer new opportunities to differentiate your product and mare your user interface more attractive.

  • accent colors

These colors are used to accentuate certain elements of a UI, such as progress bars, buttons, or other types of valuable information. They are generally more saturated and brighter, encouraging users to interact with your UI’s elements.

  • neutral colors

Neutral colors act as a sort of supporting character in your UI’s design. They are often shades of gray and are typically used to backgrounds and text.

  • semantic colors

These are signaling colors which can deliver information about warnings or the success or failure of a certain action. UI designers often choose colors for this specific task. For example, some of the most common semantic colors are red for errors, green for success, yellow for warning, and blue for informational messages.

Semantic colors are all around us, not just in user interfaces, but in the real world as well. For example, consider traffic lights, as they use semantic colors to send us messages about what we can and cannot do.

Color and branding

A website or app’s overall color scheme will typically also reflect the company’s branding and values. It can actually contribute to the overall brand perception.

CCICOLOR, the Institute of Color Research, conducted research which showed that users often judge products they see online within the first 90 seconds of initially seeing them. According to their research, between 62% and 90% of their opinions are influenced by the color scheme alone. Their findings suggest that color can actually reflect a brand’s personality, as follows:

  • red is seen as showing power, passion, and energy. It is a symbol of both good and bad feelings such as love, confidence, and anger. It can very effectively be used to attract users’ attention, but being such an intense color, be sure to use it in moderation and pay close attention to the shade of red you are using to ensure it is not visually annoying.
  • green is seen as showing growth and health. It has environmental connotations, being the color that we associate with nature, and is great for websites or apps that are focused on environmental topics. It can suggest purity, clarity, and freshness, as well as inexperience.
  • blue is seen as showing reliability, safety, calm, and purity. Users tend to feel comfortable and at ease with it and it is commonly used in corporate images. Remember that blue can also suggest distance and sadness.
  • orange is seen as showing friendship, youth, and unification. It is energetic and warm, suggesting excitement.
  • yellow is seen as showing happiness, positivity, and enthusiasm. It symbolizes warmth and closeness, which is not surprising since it is the primary color we associate with the sun and light in general.
  • purple is seen as showing wealth and royalty. It also suggests mystery and magic.
  • black can have many meanings; naturally, it can suggest dark things such as tragedy, death, and pain, but it can also be mysterious and both traditional and modern at the same time. Nowadays it is widely seen as a representation of professionalism and seriousness, dedication. Many companies use black when marketing and even designing high-quality, premium products.
  • white is seen as showing purity, clarity, and innocence, as well as wholeness and emptiness at the same time.

Color and user experience

Color is a huge part of the user experience and has a lot of influence over how users feel when visiting a website or using an app. A concrete example of its influence on the user experience is the way it influences usability and readability of the text being displayed on-screen.

The right contrast between text and its background is crucial to a good user experience and it is not hard to understand why. If users cannot read your text, they will very likely leave. Consider how red text looks against a blue background. That combination of colors makes the text particularly difficult to read as our eyes have trouble focusing on these two colors at the same time. The opposite is also true, with blue text in a red background. These are strong colors which can strain our eyes and putting them together like that definitely will.

Text can also be “deprioritized” by reducing the level of contrast between it and its background. This helps users skip over text that is non-essential when they are skimming or speed-reading.

A color’s vibrancy can also help produce an emotional experience for users. Bright colors are energetic, which is why most call-to-actions use bright colors and give a sense of urgency. News websites, for example, use red text to call attention to important news. Colors which are softer and less vibrant help induce calm when users are navigating a website.

How colors complement each other

To ensure your website or app uses a harmonious color scheme, you need to focus on the details of each color you have chosen. Here are some things you need to consider:

  • tints, shades, tones

There can be many variations of a single hue. You can make a tint by adding white to the hue, a shade by adding black, and change tonality by adding gray.

The easiest color scheme in which you can achieve balance through tints, shades, and tones to the monochromatic scheme (single color).

  • contrast

Contrast simply represents the measure of variation between two colors. The greatest level of contrast is offered by colors on opposite sides of the color wheel, such as black and white. You can use contrast to achieve balance or draw users’ attention to a certain part of your website or app.

It is important to remember, however, that you need to be careful with your use of contrast. Improper handling may confuse or annoy users instead of helping them.

  • vibrancy

A color’s vibrancy or brightness can be used to add additional emotion to colors with brighter shades, typically reflecting an increased energy and positive emotions, whereas darker shades reduce energy and give users a sense of calm.

Additive and subtractive colors

The modern color schemes we choose are based on the systems we use to display or print our designs. The most common systems used today are RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, key - black).

RGB is an additive color system, meaning that it begins with black and colors are added to get hues up to and including white. Each color is assigned a value between 1 and 256, offering more than 16 million combinations for the entire palette. The reason for this is that RGB is normally used on screens and the underlying system is based on binary pairs.

CMYK, however, is a subtractive system. That means that in the absence of any one of the four colors, the output will be white. Colors, including black, are calculated as a percentage of each of the four colors that make up CMYK. It is normally used for print.

Keep in mind, however, that to the human eye, there is practically no difference at all between the two. Scientists say it is difficult to put an exact number on how many colors our eyes can see, but some sources put it at around 10 million. No pair of eyes are identical to another, so some people see fewer or more colors than others, but generally speaking, it’s safe to assume that there’s essentially no difference between CMYK and RGB as far as the human eye is concerned. Visually, neither palette is “better” than the other.

From a design perspective, however, the difference is important, as each system is used for producing two different outputs – print and screen. Converting between the two systems can be imprecise and yield varying results.

Online color schemes

Fortunately, if you are stuck choosing a color scheme for your website or app, there are numerous online tools which can help you. You can download color palettes and sometimes export settings for other programs from the following websites:

It is always a good idea to get feedback from your users on the color schemes you are using before deciding to move ahead with them.

Summing up

Color is a very powerful tool, and every designer knows how important color schemes are for websites or apps and especially important for branding.

As a designer, you know you need to optimize your users’ experiences as much as possible, and this includes choosing appropriate colors. This will help with:

  • usability and readability – choosing the best color combination ensures that your users can and want to keep reading your content.
  • building an emotional experience – this has a lot to do with the vibrancy of your chosen colors. Bright colors, for example, are energetic and give users a sense of urgency. They can be used to attract attention and for important messages that you do not want users to miss. Colors which are softer and less vibrant can calm users and make them feel more at ease. They are commonly used in industries such as banking.

As a designer, using colors to your advantage means that you have to know what goes into them. Looking at a color wheel which can produce any color, we have:

  • tints – made by adding white to a hue, which is the part of a color that make it discernible (e.g. red, green, orange, etc.)
  • shades – made by adding black to a hue
  • tones – made by adding gray to a hue

The easiest way to get a balance through tints, shades, and tones, is by using monochromatic schemes.

When choosing a color scheme, also consider:

  • contrast – good for drawing users’ attention to certain features or elements and achieve balance in your design by using the measure of variation between colors, including black and white. At the same time, be careful with contrast, as overdoing it may confuse and annoy users.
  • vibrancy – this is crucial for getting an emotional response out of your users. Their feelings are important, so use your chosen color scheme to tap into users’ feelings. Use bright shades to reflect energy, positivity, and happiness, and use darker shades for a calming effect.

Remember to choose your color scheme based on the medium your design is for, either print or display.

CMYK is a subtractive color system used for print, capable of generating 10 million combinations of color.

RGB is an additive color system used for displays, capable of generating over 16 million combinations of color.

There are many online tools which can help you choose an appropriate color palette. Before settling on one, however, be sure to consult with your users and ensure it works with them. The feedback you will get from them will save you a lot of time and money down the road.