Allowing one color to dominate, in contrast to others, focuses attention on design elements in that color and allows them to communicate a distinct message. Layouts that feature strong contrasts between colors in terms of hue, saturation, and value have the greatest possibilities for expressive effect. However, designers must work to unify the contrasting elements without destroying the strength and impact of the piece.
Adjusting volume or proportion—that is, experimenting with the amounts of each color used can provide interesting results. For example, a small—dark spot of color, because it is of lower value, can dominate a large light area. Also, a small amount of a warm color can dominate a larger area of a cool color, although both may have the same intensity. Proportion can be used to make a design appear light by incorporating a large area of a light hue. Conversely, large amounts of dark values make the design appear dark, even somber. Alternating color based on saturation rather than proportion completely changes the perceived visual mix of color.
Designers can use color, in either free-form or text-based layouts, as they do other graphic elements. Experimenting with colors allows designers to develop keen observations about color interactions.
The Power of Contrast
Exploring the notion of contrast is an effective experimentation tool. Contrast is the perceived difference between adjacent colors in a design. The highest levels of contrast appear between the achromatic colors—black and white. Complementary colors also have high chromatic contrast. Contrast levels allow for aesthetic expression and determine legibility.
The famed color theorist Johannes Itten observed the following seven types of contrast:
- The contrast of hue: the juxtaposition of colors at their most intense.
- Light-dark contrast: formed by juxtaposition of light and dark values, including those in monochromatic compositions.
- Cold-warm contrast: juxtaposition of hues that are considered warm (red, orange, yellow) or cool (violet, blue, green). Three-dimensional depth is easy to achieve with this type of contrast because of the advancing (warm) and receding (cool) characteristics of the colors.
- Complementary contrast: the juxtaposition of hues opposite each other on the color wheel.
- Simultaneous contrast: the contrast formed when adjacent hue boundaries perceptually vibrate as they optically mix.
- The contrast of saturation: the juxtaposition of more and less saturated colors.
- The contrast of extension, also called the contrast of proportion: formed by assigning proportional field sizes in relation to the visual weight of a hue.