The Secret Language of Color Part 1: Building Powerful Color Palettes

Lela Barker



Welcome to part 1 of the secret language of color series! I hope last week’s introduction has you meditating about your brand’s color palette and the messages they’re sending. If you missed that, we invite you to catch up on what’s happening here.


Color is so influential on our behaviors that there’s actually a science behind it, called Color Theory. The science provides best practices for choosing color palettes that evoke positive emotions (+ boost sales). While Color Theory includes a vast amount of data + studies upon which some build entire careers, I’m going to demystify the science into small bits we can digest and begin implementing into our branding + packaging.


Creating a winning color palette begins with a simple color wheel. The color wheel is divide by warm colors (oranges and reds) and cool colors (blues and greens). The colors in the middle (yellow and purple) can be considered warm or cool depending on the family of colors chosen for the palette with which they’re paired.


There are a number of predefined standards that use the color wheel to create powerful palettes. These color standards include: monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, triadic and double-complementary, also called tetradic.  Following these standards offers an easy way to create fabulous palettes without a lot of experience. In this installment of our blog series, I’m going to show you just how easy it is to create palettes from these standards and use the theory in your own designs. Keep in mind that beautiful palettes include shades, tints or tones of the colors on the color wheel.


A tint is a variant of a color made by adding a little more white.

Shades darken each color by adding black.

A tone is created by adding gray to a color.


Your palettes don’t have to include the exact colors shown on the wheel, but we’ve offered as a “jumping off point” of inspiration. Additionally, adding a neutral color to your palette (white, beige, gray, black, etc.), along with the colors chosen from the predefined standards, creates a brilliant contrast in design. Now onward to dissect color theory!


Monochromatic color palettes are created by first selecting a main color on the color wheel and then adding shades, tints or tones of that main color to create a palette. For example, if we chose purple as our main color, a monochromatic color palette might include colors like those shown in the color board above. The popular ombre effect is a perfect example of a monochromatic color palette.

Analogous palettes are created by choosing colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. In the color board above, I chose yellow, red, orange and slight variations of those colors to create a palette, because those colors all neighbor each other on the color wheel.


Complementary colors are created by choosing a main color on the color wheel and finding its complementary color directly across from it on the wheel. In this example, I chose redish-orange as my main color with its complementary color of blue.


Split complementary colors are similar to complementary colors, but with a twist. You select your main color on the color wheel and find its complementary color directly across from it. Then you select the two colors on each side of the complementary color to build your palette. In my example, I chose the main color of blue with the split complementary colors of yellow and dark orange.


And things get really interesting with triadic color palettes. To create this type of palette, select three colors that are equally spaced around the color wheel. An example could be purple, green and orange since each color has exactly three colors between them on the color wheel. For the above example, I chose orange, purple and blue.


The last power palette is called the double-complementary, also called tetradic. To create this palette, you simply select two sets of complementary colors. For example, if we chose red, our complementary color would be green (the color directly across red on the color wheel). Then, if we chose dark blue, our second complementary color would be orange. The color palette would then include red, green, dark blue and orange.


Now that you’ve learned six ways to build power palettes, you’re armed and ready to mix some magical colors into your branding + packaging!


Click here for The Secret Language of Color Part 2: Color Meanings


About the Author

Lela Barker

Lela Barker hails from the deep-and-dirty south (ATL, represent!), where she spends her days helping makers and product designers navigate the pitfalls of product pricing, brand development, and wholesale strategy. She launched her apothecary brand in 2003 and bootstrapped the hell out of that little business to cultivate a portfolio of 1500+ stockists worldwide, generating $12million in revenue and establishing successful distributorships in the Middle East, EU, Scandinavia, and South Korea. Lela is the keeper of a well-worn passport and the maker of the finest lemon meringue pie you’ve ever put in your mouth.

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