Color Theory for Interior Designers

Color Theory: a Simple Guide for Interior Designers

Color theory is crucial to good interior design. Put simply, color theory is the study of how colors interact and how we perceive them. That said, it is a vast subject. It encompasses a wide range of topics including the color wheel, color schemes, color harmony, and the emotional and psychological effects of color. By understanding all of its facets, you can utilize color theory to effectively communicate the mood and function of a space.

The Three Color Systems

There are three color systems that we use prolifically in our everyday lives. These include the RGB color system, the CMYK color system and the RYB color system.

The RGB color system is used mostly when it comes to seeing color – light – through technological means. If you are reading this text on a computer, phone, tablet or projector then the colors you see on the screen are rendered with the additive color system. That said, depending on the tech, the colors may have been created with more than one color system. The primary colors in the RGB color system are red, green and blue.

The CMYK color system is mostly used in print. If you’ve ever looked closely at a color ink cartridge for a printer, you’ll often see that they display cyan, magenta and yellow. These colors form the foundations of color in printing.

Lastly, the RYB color system is what the average person is most familiar with. When we use acrylic paint, or other forms of pigment, we are using the RYB color system.

When it comes to how we create colors, I will only be discussing the RYB color system related to paints, pigments and dyes. However, most of the information provided in this article remains relevant and true to the other two color systems. 

The Color Systems: RGB, CMYK, RYB

The Qualities of Color in Color Theory


The hue of a color refers to the name we generally associate it with. In other words, hue is what we use to decide whether a color is red or green.

Hues exist on the color wheel. The primary hues are red, yellow, and blue. We can create secondary hues by mixing primary hues together. This is how we produce orange, green and purple. These secondary hues are clearly distinguishable from those that are primary.

Therefore, we only have words for six hues: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

All other chromatic colors we experience throughout life are merely variations of these hues.


In color theory, a value refers to how light or dark a color appears. We often represent it on a scale from white (highest value) to black (lowest value).

For instance, we would describe navy as a hue with low value. Conversely, a light blue would have high value.


Saturation in color theory refers to how vibrant a color appears. A highly saturated color has a hue that appears pure, or very close to pure.

Some examples of colors with high saturation are the primary colors. They are very bold and always stand out amongst secondary and tertiary colors.

Color Qualities: Hue, Value, Saturation

Color Theory: Color Variations in Hues

Black, White and Gray: Achromatic Colors

Black and white get their own section in color theory because they are different from most other colors. These colors are achromatic, meaning they have no hue. This is why they do not appear in their purest forms on the color wheel.

We only experience black and white through light. White light exists, and things can appear black when there is no light for our eyes to interpret. That said, yes you can purchase white and black paint. These paints however are not achromatic. They do in fact have hues mixed into them, we just can’t distinguish them with the naked eye.

For instance, think about a black piece of cotton fabric. Often, if you run it under water and squeeze out the excess, you will notice that the water rings out slightly purple. This is due in part to the violet pigment that the manufacturer used to create a color that appears black. In actuality, this ‘black’ is a violet with a very low color value.

You create gray by mixing black and white. Therefore, a true gray is achromatic. But much like “black” dyes or paints, gray pigments often have some hue mixed into them. This is most evident in the gray color selection at your local paint store. 

The grays available for purchase are either blue-grays or pink-grays because they are mixed with another hue. You may not be able to pick up on these distinctions if you only had one gray paint chip, but when viewed together, these color distinctions are evident.

Tints, Shades, and Tones

We can create infinite color variations with our limited hues by mixing them with the colors black, white and gray. In doing so, we create tints, shades, and tones.

A tint is a combination of a color with white. Lighter colors such as pastels are all examples of tints. By nature, tints have a high value.

A shade is any color that is mixed with black. Navy and maroon are both shades of blue and red respectively.

A tone is any color that is combined with gray. Consequently, tones appear hazy. They have some saturation, but not enough for us to classify them as pastels. Muted colors are often a tone of some hue.

By creating color schemes that utilize tints, shades and tones you can create depth and dimension within an interior design. This is due to the differing amounts of saturation and brightness in a composition.

Tone, tint and shade of the color red.

The Color Wheel in Color Theory

Primary Colors

As you may know, a primary color is a color that you cannot create by combining other colors. We consider these colors to be the “purest” for this reason. The three primary colors in the RYB color system are red, blue, and yellow. All colors are created by a combination of these colors. 

That said, we can also create more color variations when we mix a color with black, white and gray.

The primary colors have a special relationship with each other as they are both opposite and equidistant to one another in the color wheel.

Secondary Colors

You can created secondary colors by mixing two primary colors in equal parts. You can find them on the color wheel between the two primary colors you used to create them.

There are three secondary colors:

Orange: Created by mixing red and yellow together.

Green: Created by mixing blue and yellow together.

Purple: Created by mixing blue and red together.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors, or intermediate colors, are colors that are created by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. Their names are generally a combination of the two colors that were used to create them.

There are six tertiary colors:

Red-orange: Created by mixing red and orange

Yellow-orange: Created by mixing yellow and orange

Yellow-green: Created by mixing yellow and green

Blue-green: Created by mixing blue and green

Blue-purple: Created by mixing blue and purple

Red-purple: Created by mixing red and purple

Since tertiary colors are “in-between” colors, they are useful in connecting two colors that may seem otherwise unrelated. This technique is especially useful in open concept spaces. 

For instance, a hotel with a primarily green lobby and a primarily blue open bar can create color continuity by having a seating area between these two spaces that is primarily blue-green. In doing so, all of these areas have a designated function within a single space, yet the colors suggest that they are nonetheless related.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors

Color Combinations in Color Theory

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are pairs of colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. They are also known as contrasting colors. When you use complementary colors, you create visual contrast that is balanced in tone. This is because in all pairings of complementary colors one color is cool-toned and the other is warm-toned.

Some examples of complementary colors include:

Red and green

Blue and orange

Yellow and purple

Complementary colors create a sense of visual contrast and excitement because they are directly opposing one another. Although they appear jarring to some people, complementary pairings bring out the best qualities of both colors.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are a group of colors that are located next to each other on the color wheel. They are also known as harmonious or adjacent colors. Analogous colors often share some common characteristics such as tone. Consequently, you can use them to create a sense of harmony in an interior space.

Some examples of analogous color groups include:

Red, orange, and yellow

Blue, blue-green, and green

Purple, red-purple, and blue-purple

You can also use analogous colors to create a sense of depth and dimension in a composition. This is because they are often slightly lighter or darker than their adjacent counterparts. In other words, analogous colors are similar, but are different enough that they provide some variety.

For this reason, you can use them to create a sense of fluid movement when you wish to make a color transition. For example, using various shades and tints of green in a room can create a sense of movement from a sage wall to a forest green wall. They will in essence smooth out the changes in color so that they appear intentional.

Monochromatic Colors

Monochromatic colors are a group of colors that are derivatives of one color. The variations of this one color are created by combining this one color with various amounts of black, white or gray. The results of these combinations form a monochromatic color combination.

For example, a monochromatic color scheme that uses the color red can include different tints and shades of red such as pink, maroon, and crimson.

Since monochromatic colors are derived from one color, monochromatic color schemes are inherently harmonious. And because they can vary from light variations to dark, they also have depth and create dimension through contrast. 

For all of these reasons, you can have large groups of monochromatic colors without them feeling too busy. However, because all of the colors are variations of one color, monochromatic color schemes will not be balanced in tone.

Analogous, Complementary and Monochromatic Color Combinations

How Color Affects Mood in Color Theory

The Tones of Color

The word tone refers to the impression or feeling something gives off. In color theory, there are two tones in the RYB color system: warm-toned and cool-toned.

We associate warm-toned colors with warmth and energy. Some examples include red, orange, and yellow. We perceive them to be warm and energetic because we associate them with fire, the sun and the summer season.

We associate cool-toned colors with tranquility and relaxation. Some examples of cool-toned colors are blue, green, and purple. We associate these colors with serenity because we see them often in nature and the sea.

By understanding tones, you can utilize them to foster a particular mood or atmosphere that will properly communicate the function of a space.

Neutral Colors

A neutral color is a color that you can easily pair with highly saturated colors. They have the ability to counterbalance any bold or harsh qualities of other colors. 

Neutral colors are mostly founded on the achromatic colors white, gray and black. Therefore, many tints, shades and tones can function as neutral colors. Neutral colors are great foundational colors in color schemes because you can use them in high quantities without creating an overbearing space.

Some popular neutral colors include white, black, gray, brown and beige. We see these colors often in homes – on walls, ceilings and floors. And it makes sense. You can cover a large surface area in these colors and simply change the color scheme from room to room through furniture and accessories.

Color Psychology and Symbolism

Color Psychology

How we interpret – and therefore experience – a space is dependent on color psychology.

People who work with color psychology study how color affects us in everyday life. Their studies have shown that color can affect our emotions. We may subconsciously prefer a restaurant that uses red, yellow or green in its branding because we associate those colors with fruit and vegetables. This in turn increases our appetite. However, on average, people tend to think less favorably of the color blue in the restaurant business because not many of our food sources are blue.

Therefore, when thinking about color in interior spaces, it is crucial to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What is the function of the space I am designing for?
  2. How do I want others to feel when they enter this space?

In answering these questions, you can cut down on the infinite options you have and hone in on an effective color scheme.

Color Symbolism

Because of color psychology, colors have developed symbolic meaning. That is to say that we attach particular emotions, experiences and ideas to colors regardless of whether they were meant to convey those emotions or not. For example, we generally associate yellow with happiness while associating black with emotions such as depression or sorrow.

However, due to differences in culture and history, symbolic color meanings are not necessarily universal. For instance, brides in the U.S often wear white. Overtime, we associated white with purity. However, brides in China often avoid white wedding dresses because they associate white with death.

That said, this doesn’t mean that designers cannot utilize color symbolism when designing. You absolutely can, it is just a matter of understanding the people you are designing for. Context is key.


A few key take away points:

  • Colors have three qualities that affect their appearance: hue, value and saturation.
  • Black, white and gray are achromatic colors. You can create color variations by mixing hues with an achromatic color, thus creating a tint, shade or tone.
  • Most colors fall into one of three categories: primary colors, secondary colors or tertiary colors.
  • Some common color combinations include complementary, analogous and monochromatic.
  • Color absolutely affects our mood, so be mindful of the kinds of associations we attach to colors when designing a color palette for a client.

Although color theory can be very technical, it is nonetheless relevant to various avenues of design. And design in its essence is purposeful. Therefore, it is crucial that designers have a firm understanding of how colors work with one another and how we then interpret those interactions. By understanding the relationship between colors and how they interact, designers can create rooms that are both visually pleasing and properly reflect their function.

The primary colors are the purest colors on the color wheel. This means they cannot be created by combining any other colors. The three primary colors are red, yellow and blue.

Complementary colors are two colors that are directly across one another on the color wheel. For example, the complementary color of red is green.

Warm- and cool-toned colors can be used to establish a particular mood and atmosphere. This is done by recognizing that warmed-toned colors are often associated with energy and cool-toned colors are often associated with tranquility. By knowing these associations, you can then select a particular tone to best reflect the mood or atmosphere you wish to portray.

Neutral colors are colors that pair well with most other colors. They are often used as a base color in a color scheme because they work well with saturated accent colors.

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