Color theory is one of the most fundamental fields in graphic design, and it is central to selecting color palettes for any signage that you are going to design and have printed for your business. In order to effectively involve color theory in your design-making decisions, it is highly important to understand the terminology involved, so that you can have a full perspective on what color options you have at your disposal when creating color palettes for your signage. Here is a quick guide to color theory terminology.

Color Wheel

We discussed the color wheel at great length in a post earlier this month about creating color palettes using the color wheel. The color wheel is essentially an arrangement of 12 hues around a circle and is heavily used by designers to create color schemes for their designs.


A hue is what we commonly refer to as a color. You could consider the 12 spokes on the color wheel to be hues. Different hues are caused by different wavelengths of light.


Chromaticity refers to how “pure” a hue is. A color with high chroma, for example, will contain no white, gray, or black and will appear very vivid, while a color with lower chroma will have some white, gray, or black mixed in with the hue.


Saturation, often confused with chromaticity, refers to how “weak” or “strong” a color is, rather than how pure a hue is. To achieve a less saturated form of a hue, you would actually “mix” the hue with its complement. For example, adding orange to pure blue makes for a less saturated, or weaker, blue.


Value refers to how light or dark a color is based on how close it is to white. Hues inherently have a value attached to them. Yellow, for example, is considered very light, while red and green fall somewhere in the middle, and its complement purple is considered very dark. When you’re looking at a black and white photo, the contrast you are seeing is contrast in value. (Therefore, a color photo featuring primarily red and green probably wouldn’t make for a very great black and white photo, as red and green are very similar in value.)


A tint is a lighter variant of a hue, made by adding white to that hue.


A shade is a darker variant of a hue, made by adding black to that hue.


A tone is a variant of a hue that is made by adding gray to that hue.

Primary Colors

On the color wheel, this generally refers to red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary Colors

On the color wheel, this generally refers to orange, green, and purple.

Tertiary Colors

This refers to those in-between hues, such as red-orange, yellow-green, green-blue, red-violet.

Warm Colors

These are colors that do not include any blue.

Cool Colors

These are colors that do not include any red.

Understanding Color Terminology in Design

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