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Color Theory: Contrasts

Color Theory: Contrasts

This design is mainly ton-sur-ton. Which means that the colors have no contrast of hue. Except for the display, which has specifically contrast of hue.

Igor Asselbergs

Repeat after me: It’s not about the colors, it’s about how the colors relate to one another. Say it loud. Say it one thousand times. And never forget it.

Don’t worry about what I mean by that. Just read this blog. Ultimately, each and every post on this blog is written to support this premise.

If color design is about how colors relate to one another, we must accept that it’s more about contrasts than about single colors. That makes color contrasts among the most valuable assets in your color toolkit. And among the color contrasts, the most important is:

1. Contrast of Brightness When it becomes darker, you will perceive brightness contrasts long after you cease to see the difference between red and green. This is simply the result of the build of our eyes. But other than that, there is no stronger contrast than between black and white. It’s no coincidence that most texts appear as black characters on a white background. This blog is no exception.

2. Contrast of Hue The second important contrast is the one of hue. Contrasts of hue can be quite powerful. Johannes Itten, the Bauhaus professor, defined 7 color contrasts. Among those were ‘contrast of warm and cool’ and ‘contrast of complement’. But in fact, the two latter contrasts are subject to the contrast of hue.

3 Contrast of Saturation This contrast can add subtlety to your design. But don’t count on it to get a strong message across.

And that’s it. Basically there are only 3 kinds of contrasts that you can use in a color design. They follow the 3 ‘dimensions’ of color that I explained previously. However, the fun starts when you combine all 3 contrasts. In fact it’s quite rare to see a one-of-a-kind contrast. Here are some real-life examples:

This color design has it all: the grey part on the right has a saturation contrast as well as a brightness contrast with the blue part. The orange button has a contrast of hue with its blue background, which makes it stand out very clearly. It’s important to note that the button doesn’t stand out because it’s orange. It stands out because it is NOT blue! The functionality, the shapes and the colors fit exactly together in one brilliant design.

This design is mainly ton-sur-ton. Which means that the colors have no contrast of hue. Except for the display, which has specifically contrast of hue.

On first sight there is almost exclusively contrast of hue. But if you look carefully you will notice a brightness hierarchy.

This is a measuring device. The color design distinguishes two parts: the blue-grey front and the brown casing. The casing has a combination of all 3 contrasts with the front: brightness because the casing is much brighter than the front, hue because the bluish front and the brown casing are complementary, and saturation because the bluish front is much greyer than the casing. The buttons have a contrast of brightness with the front which makes them clearly visible without cluttering the overall design.

To illustrate the importance of contrasts, I photoshopped the brown cell phone to produce the second image in blue. But I left the contrasts intact in the blue phone. You may notice that while all the colors have been altered, the overall design didn’t change much. My choice of colors didn’t affect the shapes or composition. I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste whether you prefer the blue or the brown version, but both designs are perfectly acceptable. However, in the third image I took the exact same colors as in the first image and then applied them in a different manner. This caused a change in contrasts. As a result I completely ruined the design of the phone, without even changing my color palette!

So, again repeat after me: It’s not about the colors…….


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