While they may seem like very different artforms, graphic design and music actually have a lot in common. Firstly, they share a mutual purpose of evoking a certain emotional response in those who consume it—whether it’s a sad ballad that tugs at the heartstrings or an ad that instills a sense of hope or aspiration.
Another thing they have in common? The importance of harmony.
In music, harmony is when complementary notes or sounds are used simultaneously to create a pleasing effect for the listeners. And, color can and should also be used to achieve a similar effect in graphic design.
Read on to learn about what color harmony is, why it’s so important and how you can use it to create eye-catching designs that are like music to your viewer’s eyes!
What does color harmony mean?
Color harmony is when you use color combinations side-by-side that are pleasing to the human eye. This can either create contrast or consonance (when you use similar shades)—so long as they make sense together and create a visually satisfying effect.
This calming website layout from Timelikes—a website that shows you a timeline of the likes you’ve received on Facebook—is the perfect example of a harmonious color scheme in action.
Why color harmony is important
Color harmony is a crucial part of color theory, as the human brain seeks balance from our visual experiences. Therefore, there needs to be a logical order in not only the composition of our designs but also the colors we use. When your color scheme isn’t in harmony, one of two things can happen.
- Your design can appear bland and boring and therefore, your audience feels underwhelmed and is likely to quickly forget your brand.
- Your design is so chaotic and overwhelming that the brain can’t process it—so your audience can quickly dismiss it.
Some color combinations are so incongruous, that they can actually hurt your viewer’s eyes! This is known as the vibrating color effect and occurs, as the edges of the colors appear to blur and glow. This occurs when you use two colors that are complementary to each other (ie. they are on opposite sides of the color wheel) but are used at a high saturation and brightness.
How to create color harmony in your designs
While these kinds of combinations are acceptable print, they lead to a highly uncomfortable viewing experience on screens and should be avoided at all costs!
Color harmony combinations and why they work
Even if you’ve never heard of the concept of color harmony, you’ve definitely seen it in action before. It’s those combinations that just go together with ease, even if it’s hard to put your finger on why. A harmonious color scheme can be soothing, exciting or powerful, depending on colors you use. Here, we take a look at some effective examples from brands.
Blue and yellow
Here, designer Andre Kunze has paired yellow and blue to create color unity in this branding for Tour and Travel. It’s an aesthetically-pleasing combination that feels both joyful and relaxing— which is ideal for a travel company! Perhaps the reason this color scheme works so effectively is because it’s one we’re are used to seeing in nature—yellow for the sun and blue for the ocean (which is also reflected in their logo).
Want to achieve a similarily vibrant color scheme in your own designs? Canva’s Blue and Yellow Typographic Quotes Instagram Post template is perfect for making visually harmonious social media posts for your own brand or business.
Green and orange
In theory, green and orange may not seem like colors that would pair well together. After all, they’re nowhere near each other on the color wheel, nor are they direct opposites. Yet here, in this branding project for Creative Mints, they work together superbly to create an elegant and impactful aesthetic. This goes to show that sometimes, unexpected color combinations can actually be the most harmonious.
You can take a leaf out of this designer’s book with Canva’s Dotted Green and Orange Bingo Fundraiser Flyer template, which features a similar dark teal and rusty orange aesthetic.
How to use color harmony in design
The first step to creating color harmony in design is choosing your key color. This is going to be your hero color, around which you'll build the rest of your color scheme. If you already have a logo, the most dominant hue in this will most likely become your key color. This color will remain fixed, meaning it will remain consistent across all of your visual collateral—no matter how few or many other colors you use.
Once you have your key color, you will choose one or more complementary colors to go alongside it.
Here, it’s important to note that creating color harmony doesn’t always have to be a case of just slapping two shades side by side. There are a few ways you can integrate it into your work in a way that doesn’t feel too obvious. You can also adjust the ratio of colors as needed depending on your design goals and the format you’re working with.
Here are a few different ways you can use color harmony in design:
In this logo for an ice-cream company, the designer has used an eye-popping hot pink and blue combination. They have split the design diagonally down the middle to combine the two colors, while also creating a symmetrical effect. However, they have also used the alternating colors in the cut-outs of their text to artfully tie the layout together.
You can get the look with Canva’s Pink and Blue Funky Party Flyer template, which can easily be swapped out with your text and fonts to create your own branded flyer.
You don’t necessarily have to use colors in 50/50 proportions to achieve color harmony in your designs You can also make one your hero color and simply use one or two others sparingly as accents. In these layouts, the designer has used purple and green as her main colors, but has used the complementary colors of pink and blue respectively to add extra visual interest.
Gradients are an excellent way to create color harmony in your designs, as they allow you to seamlessly tie a few different shades together. You can see how this works in this website for Elje Group. The designer has incorporated three different colors—purple, pink and orange — but has used a gradual effect to blend them together in a harmonious way.
Want to use the gradient effect in your own designs? Canva’s Pink Dots Hot Neons Gradients (Cont.) Cool Presentation template is an excellent starting point, as it can be customized with your own color scheme.
The rules of color harmony
The tricky thing about color harmony is that our perception of color is so subjective. We all see and respond to colors in slightly different ways based on various factors like our age, gender, state of mind and cultural background as well as socially-learned associations with certain colors. For this reason, what looks beautiful to one person may look strange or offputting to another.
To take out some of the guesswork, there are a few guidelines around how to achieve color harmony. These are tried-and-tested color schemes based on how the different hues on the color wheel interact — and how we as humans perceive these. By paying attention to these rules of color harmony, you can rest assured that your color combinations will look appealing to the majority of people.
Analogous color schemes
An analogous color scheme is when you use colors that sit next to or very close to eachother on the color wheel. Generally, this creates a serene— and, of course, harmonious— visual effect.
In this project, designer Slana Korvoliv has used yellow and orange — two hues that sit adjacent on the color wheel. The effect is extremely grounding and immediately puts the viewer at ease.
Put this analogous color scheme to work in your own designs with Canva’s Orange and Yellow Pets and Animals Business/Advertising Website template.
Another common analogous color scheme is pairing blue and green, or a teal or turquoise hue that sits somewhere in between the two. In this design for booking software Bukoo, you can see how this color combination evokes a relaxing and tranquil feel.
For a punchier and more vibrant version of this color scheme, check out Canva’s Neon Green and Blue Creative Resume template.
Triadic color schemes
Triadic color schemes are when you use three different colors, pulled equally from around the color wheel. Two the most common triadic color combinations are orange, purple and green or red, blue and yellow.
You can see an example of that first color combination in this branding project mock-up for perfume company Senti. While the designer has also added pink into the mix, these colors can be found evenly spread around the color scheme. You can see how when even when used with pastel, more saturated colors, the triadic color scheme is still quite attention-grabbing.
A grid-style layout like the Pastel Birthday Photo Collage template in Canva is a great way to put the triadic color scheme into action, as you can easily update the squares with your own hues.
In this website for an advertising studio, designer Maxim Nilov has used the yellow, blue and red triadic color scheme. However, he has done so in a more modern way, using the on-trend hues of teal, mustard and burgundy instead of primary shades. In doing so, he’s created a harmonious effect that immediately draws the viewer in.
Canva’s Yellow Blue Red Cassette Tape Retro Concert Music Facebook Post template is perfect for achieving a similar triadic color scheme in your own designs.
Split-complementary color schemes
This harmonious color scheme is similar to analogous, but with a twist. It takes two hues that are next to each other on the color wheels, but also adds in one opposite. This creates quite a strong contrasting effect that doesn’t feel too jarring.
Red, orange, and green is an example of a split-complementary color scheme, as seen in this website by Blue Lee. Red and yellow sit adjacent on the color wheel, while green is directly opposite. This creates a look that is vibrant and bursting with vitality—fitting for website about fresh fruit!
Recreate this fun and fresh aesthetic with Canva’s Orange Green Food Fruit Product Trifold Brochure template, which can be used to create your own brochures or flyers.
Another example of a split-complementary color scheme would be pink, purple and yellow. In this illustration project for the v88 Sprintcar Livery, you can see how the yellow adds an unexpected touch to the otherwise feminine color combination of pink and purple. This is a prime example of why the split-complementary color scheme is such an effective way to add contrast.
Bring this electrifying color combination to life in your own designs with Canva’s Bright Colored Geometric General Twitch Banner template.
These three color harmony formulas are an excellent place to start when it comes to creating well-balanced designs. That said, innovative design isn’t about being a stickler to the rules or following the crowd. Using these schemes as a guideline, don’t be afraid to experiment with different color combinations or even add in a fourth, fifth or six color as you see fit. At the end of the day, it’s important to use your own best judgment as to what colors look good together—and when in doubt, ask your friends, family, peers or audience for feedback.
By using the color harmony tips, combinations and inspiration in this article, you can strike an eye-catching equilibrium in your designs. In doing so, you’ll be able to ensure you make an excellent impression on your target audience—one that will get stuck in their head just like a catchy melody!