Color is an immensely functional communication tool.
Designers use it to communicate a feeling to their audience. Blue to create a sense of calmness, red to depict passion, green to communicate growth, so on and so forth. To understand color, you must understand what four qualities define a single color: hue, saturation, value, and temperature.
As defined by Design Elements A Graphic Style Manual (2nd Edition) textbook, hue is a distinction between color identities defined by their wavelengths. This is the result of our perception. Light is reflected off objects in different and specific frequencies, our eyes perceive those frequencies as color – red, purple, green, etc. Although the perception of hue is the most absolute of the four qualities of color, color perception is relative, meaning we are only certain about a color when there is another color near to compare with. The primary colors – red, blue, and yellow – have frequencies which differ from each other in the most distinct way. A shift in frequency toward one primary color or another gives us the secondary colors: orange, green, and violet. A slight shift between a secondary color and a primary color becomes any one of the tertiary colors.
Saturation refers to the brilliance of a color, whether it is vivid or dull. When a color is fully saturated it is intense, vibrant, and powerful. A desaturated color seems dull and lifeless. Once a color is desaturated to the point of no visible hue, it is considered a neutral color. Similar to hue, the saturation of one color can appear to change based on the saturation of a neighboring color. For example, if you place a fully saturated violet next to a fully saturated candy red, the red color will overpower the violet, making it seem dull. Now, take that same fully saturated color and place it next to a slightly desaturated leafy green. The violet color now appears bright and vivid. The value of the background will also affect the saturation appearance of a color. On a pure white background, the violet color will look fully saturated, bouncing off the page. On a black background, violet will appear desaturated, almost blending in with the background.
Value and saturation go hand in hand. Value is a color’s darkness or lightness. A profoundly saturated hue will appear desaturated once it is lightened and a temperately saturated hue will intensify when darkened. In design, value creates boundaries. A deep blue-violet next to a light blue-green is a crisp difference whereas a light blue-violet will bleed into the light blue-green. Sharp, dark objects push to the foreground of a design whereas light, soft objects fall into the background. Value is seen as the most important color contrast of them all. Whether designing a logo or a layout, when you convert a design into grayscale, you see the true values of the design. You can have multiple different colors within a design but once you convert it to grayscale, if all colors are of the same value, you will be left with a design that is one shade of gray.
Temperature is the final quality related to the identity of color. TheDesign Elements A Graphic Style Manual (2nd Edition) textbook defines temperature as a color’s perceived warmth or coolness. Temperature is the most subjective quality of color, the warmth or coolness of a color is dependent on the personal, real-world experiences of the viewer. An objective view of color considers reds and oranges as warm colors. These remind us of heat, they are the colors of a campfire and lava. That same view would consider the cool colors blues and greens. Blues remind us of glacier water while greens remind us of rainforests. Cool colors seem passive which contrasts the way warm colors seem advanced and alive. This is also do to the wavelengths of the colors. Red for example, has the longest wavelength, so the brain is stimulated when seeing this. Blue has the shortest wavelength, so the simulation is much less. Warm colors seem advanced because they push forward, the cooler colors rescind. Like all the qualities mentioned above, the apparent temperature of a color is relative to the neighboring colors. For example, a lush green placed next to a burnt orange will be described, as usual, a cool color. Now place the same lush green next to a true blue, and the green will shift to appear as a warmer color.
Once a designer knows the four qualities that make up the identity of a color, hue, saturation, value, and temperature, they are able to use color with a purpose. Designs are elevated when the creator knows how to successfully manipulate color. For example, once a designer understands that warm colors push forward, they are able to make type bounce off a page. They are able to give a design a truly sophisticated feeling by desaturating the colors within a layout. A designer can even create a sense of calmness for the viewer using hues of blue. When a design has contrasting colors in all four qualities, you are left with a truly dynamic color mix.