The colour wheel, colour theory, and how they can guide your business choices

COLOURS! As an art kid I’ve grown up with a solid understanding of colour theory my whole life, particularly after high school art classes - and as a result I often forget it’s not something that everyone knows.

The colour wheel is a great tool that explains the technical aspects of colour. There are also a whole range of psychological variables explaining why we respond emotionally to different colours. So if you’re a business owner interested in smart marketing, it’s your job to properly use the colour wheel and colour theory to make people like you.

Manipulation? Maybe. Lol

Today I’m giving a lesson on colour theory 101. You’ll learn what colours are, how they’re categorised, and how you can use them to your advantage. Let's dive in!

The Colour Wheel

First of all, we'll look at the colour wheel to understand what colours are and how they work.

Embedded from Peachpit, a Pearson education site.

Primary and secondary colours

The basic colours are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple (sorry, indigo, no dice.). Red, yellow and blue are known as the primary colours. Orange, green and purple are secondary colours - because orange is made from red and yellow, green is made from yellow and blue, and so on. Colours like indigo are further blends of these combos - indigo being a mixture of blue and purple, peach being a mixture of red and orange, and lime green being a mixture of green and yellow.

What about black and white?

Black and white are a little more complex - as neither is technically a colour. Black is what you’ll get when you mix all the colours together (pigments and ink) or have no colour at all (light). Whereas white is the opposite - the absence of colour (pigments and ink) or all the colours together (light). Colours behaving differently depending on whether they're made using light or ink is why we have different ways of setting up documents as designers - RGB (screen) and CMYK or Spot colour (print). This helps us make sure colours always show up properly.

But I digress - the point is you can darken colours by adding black, or tint colours by adding white. Can you think of one colour you can only get if you use white?

A picture of pink flamingoes
Objectively the best colour - a blend of red and white, sometimes with a touch of blue in the mix.

All pastel colours are made by blending white with regular colours, but pink is the only one that has its own unique name.

Following so far?

Opposite colours

See how there are six portions on the colour wheel? On the opposite side to red is green, on the opposite side to yellow is purple, and on the opposite side to blue is orange. These opposites are called “complementary colours”, and they are the exact inverse of each other.

When you place these colours next to each other, they pop, looking super vibrant. You’ll notice that anything Christmassy, for example - with red and green in it - is super vibrant and eye catching because the colours are chromatic opposites. This is something you can use to your advantage - by adding some blue shading when colouring an orange-based skin tone, by outlining a red rose with green, or by sprinkling a touch of violet on yellowy sand. But be careful - subtlety is king here, because being too vivid with opposing colours can be clashy and super ugly.

A picture of a Christmas wreath with a red ribbon.
The wreath and red ribbon are so vivid here because they're complementary colours.

Warm vs cool

Something else you’ll notice is that the same colour can have different warmth. Look at these two reds: The red on the left is warm red. The red on the right is cool red. A colour is warm if it has more yellow or red in it, and cool if it has more blue in it. You’ll get a happier, more energetic vibe from using warm colours, and a calmer, more subdued feel from using cool colours. The more you know! For the purposes of primary colours, the cool tones are used.

Psychological emotional theories

There are popular schools of thought assigning emotional values to colours. Here are a few examples of feelings that come from colours, plus a few reasons why that might be.

Red: Romance, rage, hunger (why? Roses, blood, warmth, hot fire, intensity. Red is an appetite enhancer.)

Orange: Warning, distrust, tropics, energy, warmth (why? Venomous animals, citrus, mangoes and pawpaws, warm fire)

Yellow: Happiness, illness, warning (why? Sunlight, sunflowers and daffodils, jaundice, road signs)

Green: Nature, health, wealth, jealousy (Why? Plants, safety signals, green lights, dollar bills, illness "turning green")

Blue: Calm, softness, purity, masculinity, sadness (Why? Water, the beach, tears, the sky. Blue is an appetite suppressant. Probably because food is rarely naturally blue...)

Purple: Luxury, royalty, rarity, creativity (Why? Purple used to be the hardest colour dye to find, so it was reserved for royals. It's also apparently favoured by kids - who knew.)

Black: Death, mystery, grief (Why? Darkness, inability to see, emptiness)

White: Purity, lightness, cleanliness (Why? Light, snow, clarity)

You'll notice some of the meanings above are conflicting - like how can orange mean warning and the soothing tropics at the same time??

The answer lies in the type of colour, as well as the context in which it's placed. Generally pastels are more lighthearted and cheerful while dark or intense colours have negative connotations. For example, pastel orange harks back to ice creams and cheery holidays, while neon orange is used in signage and warnings. Pastel blue is used for babies, dark blue feels like the deep lonely ocean.

What does this mean for you?

You’re now armed with the knowledge that colours can influence people’s moods, so you must make appropriate colour choices.

For example: McDonalds’ branding is predominantly red, which has been shown to promote hunger.

Another example: a marriage counsellor who wants to promote calmness and security in her practice should paint the walls a soft blue. Vibrant orange or red could cause heightened distress and would be completely inappropriate.

Another example: tradespeople should wear orange or yellow clothing to grab attention and promote visibility. Wearing blue would be dangerous as people would find it harder to see them on the road or against the sky.

Another example: someone running a plant nursery should consider incorporating green in their logo to convey nature, lushness and health. Using red implies fire and destruction and might make people feel the plants are dying or not taken care of.

Another example: I’ve used teal (green-blue) and cool purple in my branding because I want it to be bright and colourful, but not overarousing. I felt red and yellow would be aggressive and monochrome black/white would be boring.

In fact - Unless there’s good reason for it, I do not use red and yellow in my client work as it can be perceived as aggressive.

Here are some good reasons.

My client Veraina who wanted to portray a Phoenix rising from the ashes for her life coaching business. Note that the bright, warm colour is balanced with plenty of empty white space (also called “negative space”) to avoid overwhelm. As phoenixes are made of fire, it was appropriate to use reds and oranges.

Life Potentials Life Coaching Logo by Origami Graphics

My client Railene of Raigime also requested red in her logo, alongside a navy blue - to convey the duality of passion and professionalism, to be bold and punchy, and finally just because vibrant red is her favourite colour. Again, the logo is balanced with its surroundings - this time by being minimal in its design as well as using plenty of white space.

Raigime Consulting Logo by Origami Graphics

Colour Theory 101 has now ended, but I’ve got one question left: now that you know a bit about colours, what colours should your business’ logo be and why? Let me know in the comments, by emailing me to chat at, or by commenting on this blog's Instagram post!