Color Theory and the User Experience

Ricky Casdorph


Ricky Casdorph is a user interface/visual designer at ICS and is skilled at creating compelling visuals, from concepts to prototypes. He’s experienced in a variety of mediums, including interface design, illustration and animation, and does his best work when plugged into a playlist of crushing death metal.

By Ricky Casdorph | Monday, March 31, 2014

Color theory is often referenced when creating or viewing traditional works of art. Using color to successfully portray balance, movement and atmosphere is crucial. A painter does not use color haphazardly, they use it with purpose. It is used to organize their composition, direct the viewer’s focal point and create an emotional impact. Can these general rules be applied to interface design? Can they help create a more meaningful user experience? The answer is yes!

Color in design can be quite subjective. Color affects people differently due to the user’s cultural expectations, previous experiences and how they relate to the subject matter in which, the design is applied. Let’s cover the basics of the different color families and focus on how to maximize their strengths and weaknesses while focusing on how it can be applied to interface design and the user’s experience.

It is important to define who the end user will be before introducing color. What expectations do they have based on personal preference versus cultural background? Cultural differences may have a great impact on how the end user feels with specific colors and harmonies. Yellow is often seen as the brightest of colors. In the western world yellow is normally associated with happiness and sunshine, although in specific circumstances yellow can also portray cowardice and deceit. The designer needs to anticipate how the end user’s subconscious will react to the color choices.

Color deficiencies and color blindness should also be considered. Blue/yellow and red/green are color combinations that can negatively affect a user suffering from color blindness. Also, one must take into account the lighting conditions a user may face while navigating through the user interface. Anyone can have issues discerning these color combinations under sharp colored lighting. However, if the design is well organized and uses a variety of visual cues, the distinction between colors should not present problems with readability or aesthetics.

Once the designer understands the end user’s needs they can begin, reviewing what color options work best. The full spectrum of palette colors and their families can be broken down into three general levels. The first level includes primary, secondary and tertiary colors. The second level includes warm, cool and neutral colors. The third level includes specific color properties such as hue, chroma, saturation, value, tone, shade and tint. While the third level and its color properties are important, a general understanding of the first two levels will help a designer begin to choose appropriate color palettes.

Primary Colors

● Red is often associated with attention grabbing properties (think of stop signs, red lights or the red carpet) evoking passion and danger. In general, it is best to use red as an accent color throughout a design. It can be used to direct the user’s attention or flag important information. A design using red as its primary color can be intense or overwhelming if used incorrectly.

● Yellow is often associated with happiness and raw energy. Changing the value of yellow can greatly influence the mood of a design. A soft, pastel yellow is a great gender-neutral hue when specifically used with children. Lowering the value of yellow and increasing its saturation can give a design a sense of richness and age.

● Blue is often associated with responsibility and in the correct context, sadness. Applying dark blue to a design is a great way to provoke a sense of security. It is strong and stable, a great choice for corporate design.

Secondary and Tertiary Colors

● Green is often associated with wealth, renewal and nature and is the combination of yellow and blue. It is a great neutral color and can be used alongside its primary counterparts to evoke similar feelings. It shares the same sense of security as blue while providing the energy of yellow.

● Purple is often associated with importance and wealth and is the combination of red and blue. If the end user has an expectation of luxury, using a saturated purple along with dark yellow is the way to go.

● Orange is often associated with risk and spontaneity and is the combination of red and yellow. Orange can be used to provide a sense of movement. It does a better job of grabbing the user’s attention when compared to its counterpart, the color yellow.

● Tertiary colors are made by combining either one primary color with one secondary color, or mixing two secondary colors.

Warm, Cool and Neutral Colors

Primary, secondary and tertiary colors can all be further categorized by determining if they are warm, cool or neutral. These three categories help make or break any layout. By adding a warm hue to a button, resting on a cool background a designer is able to push that button forward in a subtle fashion due to how these two groups contrast with one another.

● Warm colors consist of red, yellow and orange. These are best used when trying to evoke movement, passion and joy.

● Cool colors consist of green, blue and purple. These are best used when trying to evoke professionalism and stability.

● Neutral colors have passive characteristics, making them a great choice for backgrounds and negative space. When used correctly, they can create a very clean and sophisticated look. Designers need to take notice of where these neutral colors are placed as they can take on the characteristics of their neighbors.

Now that the basics of color and their various definitions have been covered, how might a designer use this information successfully? Perhaps they have red and green icons that share the same silhouette and line work. Would their difference in color provide enough contrast? For the average user yes, but one should always be aware that a small percentage of the population has difficulty discerning between the two. A good general rule to follow is to provide multiple ways for users to compare and contrast items regardless of their color.

Make sure to consider how warm and cool colors affect the depth of your design while organizing its layout. Try to avoid using flat black or flat white unless they are specifically needed.

Create visual cues for the user by adding subtle tones of cool or warm colors to direct their focus. If the value of a background is 100% black, add 5% white and 2% blue. The background will still read as black but now the designer has more options. Does a specific section need to be pushed forward? They can play off the cool background and add subtle hints of orange or yellow; this gives the user something to grasp onto visually without being obnoxious.

These are just the fundamental principles of color and how color can be successfully applied to interface design.

Color will always have a direct impact on the user’s experience. Detail and polish are extremely important. The colors a designer picks will work either for or against the interface design, thus it is essential to choose color with detailed purpose helping to create a meaningful user experience design on any product interface.



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