How to Conceptualize a Color Scheme for a Space

How to Conceptualize a Color Scheme for a Space

Color scheme is one of the foundational factors of good interior design. But if you’re a beginner designer you’re likely wondering, How do I do it? And how do I do it well?

Color scheme refers to the group of colors that designers use in a space. A color scheme can consist of a dominant color, a secondary color that supports the dominant color, and one or more accent colors. We can select colors in a color scheme for their aesthetic appeal, their symbolic meaning, or their psychological effects. The colors in a color scheme can affect the mood and atmosphere of a space. This can be used to create a cohesive look that ties all of the elements of a design together.

The colors you choose for your color scheme will influence the overall atmosphere of the room. This means that it will make a big difference in how others perceive the space. A well-designed color scheme can make a room feel warm and inviting, or cool and calming. This will depend on the colors you select. It can also help to tie all of the elements of a design together, making a room feel harmonious and cohesive. Additionally, we can use color schemes to highlight certain features or areas of a room.

How to Choose a Color Scheme for a Space

Function and Color Scheme

When putting together a color scheme, it’s important to identify the function of the space.

Consider this: 

If you were to look up images for an American Kindergarten classroom, what would they look like? What kinds of colors are used? If your internet search is anything similar to mine, you will notice that many Kindergarten rooms incorporate bold variations of the colors red, yellow, and blue. In other words, their color scheme is largely influenced by primary colors.

And why is this? Has American culture unanimously agreed that bright primary colors are what children prefer? That dark, moody colors such as maroon and navy are just not popular with kids?

Studies show that we can attribute the prevalence of primary colors in children’s classrooms to function. Primary colors are visually stimulating because of their vibrancy. They draw attention to themselves and are easy to distinguish when paired together and can thus facilitate learning. 

More so, at such an early stage in their life, a child’s main responsibility is to learn. Consequently, their classrooms are designed in such a way that they are bright and well-lit to ensure that

Thus, it’s crucial to identify the primary purpose of a space when deciding on a color scheme. Is the space you are designing a living room, bedroom, kitchen, etc.? Or is it a restaurant, hospital, or bar? Each type of space has its unique function, and function should guide your color choices.

How Your Color Scheme Affects Mood and Atmosphere

When creating a color scheme, think about the mood you want to create in the space. Do you want the space to feel calm and relaxing, or energetic and stimulating? Different colors can evoke different moods, so choose colors that will help to create the desired atmosphere.

Generally speaking, we associate meaning with color. These meanings can vary from culture to culture, so they may not be universal. Nevertheless, you can consider the meanings of color when forming a color scheme.

For example, we perceive green as a calming color because we often see it in nature. That said, a very saturated green will appear significantly less calming than a shade or tint of green.

Existing Features and Colors

You can also consider the existing features of the space. Look at the architecture, layout, and décor of the space. Then consider how the color scheme will work with these elements.

For instance, let us say you are putting together a color scheme for a home that has original oak wood floors that appear orange. Also, the owner does not intend on replacing or refinishing them. 

In a scenario like this, you can either choose to create a color scheme that will work well with the orange oak, or you can break up the orange with a rug. But even in the latter scenario, you will likely still have pops of orange coming through somewhere. Therefore, it’s best to establish your color palette with the orange of the oak floors in mind.

How Lighting Affects Your Color Scheme

When constructing a color scheme, it is important to take into account the natural light in the space. The way that light interacts with the colors in a room can greatly affect the overall mood and atmosphere. So be sure to take note of the amount and quality of light available.

If the space has little light, a color scheme with many dark colors will only double down on the lack of lighting. Some interiors are meant to be dark. Some example of this include clubs and bars. Therefore, there’s nothing wrong with using dark colors assuming you understand the function of the space.

One more thing to take note of is the kind of light your space receives. Colors (particularly paint on walls) can sometimes appear differently throughout the day depending on the light. North-facing windows generally add a warmness to color. On the other hand, windows directed towards the south will produce intense lighting. This in turn will cause colors to appear brighter than intended.

For example, there have been cases where gray paint has appeared blue, purple, or green during different times of the day. The culprit to this occurrence is often the direction of the windows in a space. This is why it is very important to test paint samples on walls before fully committing to a color.

60-30-10 Rule

When deciding how much of a color to incorporate into your color scheme, you can utilize the 60-30-10 rule. This rule suggests that the main color should make up 60% of the color scheme, the secondary color should make up 30%, and the accent color should make up 10%. This helps to create visual interest within a space.

Additionally, don’t forget to consider the color wheel when selecting accent colors. Your accent color(s) can be complementary to your main color. This means that the accent colors are opposite the main color on the color wheel. Or, your accent colors can be analogous to your main color. This means that the accent colors would be colors directly next to the main color on the color wheel.

Size of the Space

The size of a space can have a big impact on the way we perceive colors. Consequentially, it’s important to keep this in mind when putting together a color scheme.

When it comes to size, larger spaces can handle more vibrant or bold colors. On the other hand, smaller spaces may be better suited to more subdued or neutral colors. This is because bold colors can make a small space feel overwhelming. Neutral colors have the opposite effect and make a small space feel more open and spacious.

If a space is small and you want it to feel bigger, use lighter colors. If a space is large or has very high ceilings, you can use a dark paint color on the walls or ceiling to make it feel less open.

To put it simply:

Light colors = Space appears larger

Dark colors = Space appears smaller

Creating a Color Scheme with the Color Wheel

The color wheel is a useful tool for harmonizing colors in a color scheme. One simple way to use the color wheel is by implementing some tried and true color combinations.

Monochromatic color scheme: Select a single color and use different shades and tints of that same color to create a color scheme. This color scheme will always look balanced because the colors selected are so closely related. Additionally, a monochromatic color scheme can create a calming, peaceful atmosphere. This could be a good choice for small spaces because they can make the space feel more open and expansive.

Monochromatic Color Example

Analogous color scheme: Select colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, such as blue and green or red and orange. These colors will have a natural harmony because they will often be either warm-toned or cool-toned.

One example of an analogous color scheme is blue, blue-green, and green. To create an analogous combination, you can choose a dominant color and then use the two analogous colors on either side of it as accents. You can use analogous color schemes to create a calm, soothing atmosphere. This can be a good choice for spaces where you want to create a sense of relaxation.

Complementary color scheme: Select colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green or blue and orange. These colors will create a dynamic, vibrant look because they are contrasting. To create a complementary color scheme, you can choose a dominant color and then use its complement as an accent color. 

If you find that a complementary color scheme feels like too much, play around with the tones, shades, and tints of the colors. This can help to tone down any combinations that are too bold.

Split complementary color scheme: Select a color and then use the colors on either side of its complement, such as blue, orange-red, and yellow-orange. This creates a similar effect to a complementary color scheme but is less intense and easier to balance.

Triadic color scheme: Select colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, such as red, yellow, and blue. These colors form a triangle on the wheel, which means it is naturally balanced. To create a triadic color scheme, you can choose a dominant color and then use the two other colors in the scheme as accents. You can use the 60-30-10 rule to determine the proportions of the colors.

If you’re looking for additional resources on color and the color wheel, you can read my post on color theory here.

Analogous, Complementary, Split Complementary and Triadic Color Combinations

Tips for Implementing a Color Scheme

Use Shades, Tints, and Tones in Your Color Schemes

Using different shades, tints, and tones of the same color can add depth and interest to a color scheme, thus making it dynamic. 

In color theory, a color is considered a shade if it is created by mixing a primary color(s) with black. For instance, navy is a shade of blue because it is created by mixing blue and black.

Tints are colors that are made by combining a primary color(s) with white. Pastel colors, then, are tints.

Tones on the other hand are created by mixing colors with gray.

Tone, tint and shade of the color red.

Using different shades and tones of the same color allows you to create a gradient effect. It can also help to create a sense of unity and cohesion. This is because all of the colors in the scheme are closely related. This can be especially useful in small spaces, where using too many different colors can make the space feel busy. By using different shades and tones of the same color, you can add variety to the color scheme without overwhelming the space.

Incorporate Pattern and Texture into Your Color Schemes

Once you’ve selected your color scheme, you can add visual interest and depth through patterns and textures. 

To do this, choose patterns and textures that complement your color scheme. Consider the colors, scale, and style of the patterns and textures you use. Make sure they harmonize with the overall color scheme of the space.

If you’re looking for something dynamic, mix and match patterns and textures to create interest. If you’re unsure about how to mix patterns, you can pair them based on scale. Oftentimes, patterns will work together if you pair a small-scaled pattern with one that is larger scale. In terms of color, if two patterns share the same main color (or are tints/shades of the same color) then they will feel cohesive. For more variety, if one pattern’s accent color is the other’s main color, then they will likely work together.

Balance the Bold and the Neutral in Your Color Schemes

Some designers gravitate towards neutral color schemes because they just don’t know how to use bold colors without them feel overbearing. And the easiest way to approach any bold color is by balancing them with neutrals.

If you want some color but wish to limit its use, you can use the bold color as an accent. Bold colors can be overwhelming when used in large quantities. So, consider using them as accents rather than the dominant color in the scheme.

Additionally, you can use the 60-30-10 rule to determine how much of a bold color you wish to use. Remember, the premise of this rule is to have 60% of the color scheme be the main color, 30% the secondary color, and 10% the accent color.

If you’re thinking about using a bold color in greater quantities, you can pair it with a neutral color to counter-balance it. The right neutral color can help to tone down a bold color so your space doesn’t feel overwhelming. For example, you can balance a bold blue with a neutral gray or beige.

Also, don’t forget that you can incorporate bold colors through patterns. In other words, you don’t have to paint a room a bright red to have red in your color palette. Instead, you may choose to incorporate that color through a red patterned fabric that you use on a couch. This can then help to break up large blocks of solid color and allows the color to feel more digestible.

Test Color Schemes Through Accessories and Artwork

Accessories and artwork are a great way to test a color scheme without having to fully commit. For this reason, I recommend you live with your color scheme through a small-scale vignette if you’re unsure whether you’ll like your color selection in the long run.

To do this, get paint samples or color swatches and place them in the space you plan to use them. If you purchase paint samples, paint a small section of your wall. Once dry, set up a side table or dresser right below it. This will be where you build your vignette.

You can then choose accessories and artwork that complement your color scheme. Consider the colors, patterns, and styles of the items you choose. Arrange them so that you can see how they all work together.

This technique is particularly helpful if you’re unsure whether an accent color or pattern works with the color scheme. Because accent colors and patterns pack a punch, they are often where new interior designers get stuck. By testing out your choices in this manner, you can determine whether your accent color or pattern choices are overbearing, jarring, or too muted for the overall design. 

This is the cheapest way to test out your idea and is very non-committal. Chances are if you dislike a color combination when you’ve contained it to such a small area, then you’ll likely continue to dislike it once it dominates the room.


A quick checklist for the impatient reader:

  1. Consider the function of the room.
  2. Ask yourself: What kind of mood or atmosphere am I trying to portray?
  3. Foundational color combinations that guarantee a solid color scheme: Monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split-complementary and triadic.
  4. Work with features you cannot change, not against them.
  5. Lighting is important. Bad lighting may limit your color choices to lighter colors. Also, the direction of the windows may alter the appearance of the paint color you choose.
  6. If you’re using three colors in your palette, dictate their ratios using the 60-30-10 rule.

So, considering all of this, just how important is a color scheme?

Color scheme is an important element of interior design because it can have a big impact on the mood of a space, thus affecting how we feel within it. A well-designed color scheme can make a room feel warm and inviting, or cool and calming, depending on its function. It can also help to tie all of the elements of a design together, making a room feel balanced. 

Additionally, you can use your color scheme to highlight certain features or areas of a room or to draw the eye to – or away- specific areas of the space. A good designer will strategically select a group of colors that will maximize the best qualities of a space. In doing so, you will inevitably go from a good design to a great one.

Before thinking about color, you should take note of the function and size of the room. For instance, if you’re working on a color scheme for a study or office that isn’t very large and doesn’t get great lighting, then you may want to start your color scheme with a light color and accent it with brighter or darker colors.

Neutral color schemes have been popular for decades and will likely continue to do so. More trendy color schemes include coastal color schemes with blues, greens, and white. With the rise of interest in mid-century interiors, color schemes with orange, green and blue have become popular as well.

There are two ways to go about it. You can either use various tints, shades or tones of the color you’ve selected, thus creating a monochromatic color scheme. Or, you can evaluate the complementary, split complementary or analogous combinations of your one color. This should give you some ideas for a color scheme.

This will partially depend on where you intend to implement your color scheme. Things like lighting and the size of the space will influence how we experience a color scheme. That said, you can use the 60-30-10 ratio rule to start. You can select a neutral color as your base color and then choose accent colors of your liking for the remaining 40%.

Was this post about Color Schemes helpful? Is there something you would have liked me to touch on that I missed? Let me know in the comments below.

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