Colors can influence people’s emotions, thoughts and even purchasing decisions. They create brand identities and turn strangers into loyal fans. That’s why selecting the right colors for your creative project is one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make.

Choosing a single color is difficult enough. Every color has its own personality and unique meaning that can make or break your project. But what about deciding on an entire palette of colors? How do you make sure they all go well together?

Luckily, color theory offers a few foolproof strategies to help with this. You may already be familiar with the complementary colors rule—the idea that two opposing colors on the color wheel look good together. 

Well, if your project calls for three colors, you can use a similar concept and create a triadic color scheme. 

What Is a Triadic Color Scheme?

A triadic color scheme comprises three colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel. If you were to join them with lines, they would form a triangle.

The illustration below shows a 12-color wheel and the four different triadic color schemes you can make with it:

  • Red, Yellow and Blue
  • Red-Orange, Yellow-Green and Blue-Purple
  • Orange, Green and Purple 
  • Yellow-Orange, Blue-Green and Red-Purple
Four color wheels are displayed in a row, each with 12 colors. Black triangles depict how three equidistant colors make up a triadic color scheme on each one. 
Stills from Colorsupplyyy.com

Where Is the Triadic Color Scheme Used?

Triadic color schemes create vibrant, playful palettes with lots of personality. They’re used across all creative industries, anywhere where pops of color are needed to create a high-contrast, yet balanced look. Below are just a few industries where you can find triadic color schemes, along with real-life examples of how they’re used. 

Photography and Film

Triadic color schemes can be used in photography and videography in three different ways: through composition, color grading or a combination of both. Composition involves intentionally choosing subjects that fit a specific color palette, while color grading involves adjusting existing colors to make them fit. 

In the example below, the green, purple and yellow elements make up a triadic color scheme. The bushes, water and sky naturally have these colors, but color grading was likely used to intensify them and add more contrast. 

Photo of an infinity pool by the ocean shore at sunset. People are walking along the shore, and there’s greenery in the foreground. 
Photo by Akshay Nanavati on Unsplash

Graphic Design and Illustration

Employing color theory in graphic design and illustration is particularly important, especially when they’re used for marketing purposes. The right colors can help convey a message, present the information in an easily digestible format and even influence the readers’ emotions and actions. 

Consider the example below. The beige and red accent colors stand out nicely against the dark purple background, giving the readers clear direction on where they should be looking. There’s plenty of contrast, but the illustration is still balanced and not overly busy. 

A booklet lies flat on a surface with the front and back covers facing up. The cover features a purple space themed background and an illustration of a person with beige and red accents. 
Still from Skillshare class Practical Graphic Design: Learn Adobe InDesign Through Fundamental Design Principles by Kyle Aaron Parson

Art

With endless ways to mix and combine colors, art naturally lends itself to experimenting with triadic color palettes. They can add contrast, vibrancy and excitement to any piece, whether it’s made with physical or digital art tools. 

Two pieces of artwork rest on a surface, featuring blue flowers and maroon leaves on a yellow background. A circle indicating the color names lies between them. 
Still from Skillshare class Beginners Colour, Contrast & Pattern, Part 1; How to apply colour combinations that work well by Dawn Cawthra

Interior Design

Using color in interior design can be challenging—it’s easy to overdo it and make the space feel too busy. However, with the right balance, color can add visual interest, personality and warmth to any room. 

While there is a place for bright, vibrant colors in interior design, you’ll often see less saturated, muted versions of colors instead. These can still be used in triadic combinations to create relaxing, yet expressive designs. 

Photo of a living room designed with a color palette that features dark blue, dark brown and yellow. 
Photo by Houzlook on Pexels.

Web and UI Design 

Color theory in web and UI design helps ensure a smooth and engaging user experience. Designers often use contrasting colors to highlight key information and help with navigation. Triadic color schemes allow them to create content hierarchy and lots of contrast, while still maintaining a harmonious and visually appealing design. 

Screenshot of a website that’s split into three sections and uses blue, teal and yellow backgrounds. 
Still from Skillshare class Create Amazing Color Schemes for Your UI/UX Design Projects by Arash Ahadzadeh

How to Create a Triadic Color Scheme in 6 Steps 

Ready to develop your own triadic color schemes and implement them into your projects? Follow the steps below:

Step 1: Consider Your Project’s Intent

What is the purpose of your project? What kind of mood or atmosphere do you want it to bring on? How do you want people to feel when they see it? 

Start by answering these questions and writing down keywords about your project. These can be emotions, adjectives, action words and anything else that might be relevant. You can even browse through inspiring images and create a visual mood board. 

Step 2: Choose a Dominant Color

Use color psychology to find a color that would help achieve your project’s purpose and embody those words and images you gathered in the previous step. For example, if you’re designing a corporate proposal, choosing blue as a dominant color would help convey a sense of trust and dependability. On the other hand, if you’re developing a brand identity for a new organic product, green or brown could help portray it as natural and sustainable. 

If you have a mood board, you can extract a color palette from any image and see if any of the colors could work as your dominant color. 

Step 3: Identify Two Complementary Colors 

Use a color wheel to identify two colors that, when joined with your dominant color, form a triangle. Free tools like Adobe Color make this incredibly easy. Simply input your dominant color in the first slot and select the Triad option under Color Harmony—the other two colors will automatically change to create the perfect combination. 

Step 4: Play Around With Saturation and Brightness

If your colors feel too vibrant, you can tone them down to create a more balanced, harmonious color palette. This can be done by adjusting saturation, brightness or both. 

In Adobe Color specifically, head to Color Mode and change it to HSB. Under each color, you’ll see sliders for Hue, Saturation and Brightness. 

Moving the saturation slider to the left brings the color closer to white, while moving the brightness slider brings it closer to black. Moving them both brings it closer to gray. 

Step 5: Test the Contrast 

If you’re creating a color palette for a graphic design project, website or app, then it’s important to check whether your colors have enough contrast between them. Higher contrast will ensure your text is readable and make navigation easier for users. 

To test your contrast, you can use a tool like the Contrast Checker in Adobe Color. 

Step 6: Apply the 60-30-10 Rule 

Even though a triadic color scheme ensures that the colors work well together, using them all in equal amounts is not recommended, as it can make your project look busy and cluttered. 

Instead, try following the 60-30-10 rule: use your dominant color for 60% of the elements, secondary color for 30% and an accent color for 10%.  This creates a natural hierarchy and helps guide your audience to where they need to pay the most attention. 

Perfect Your Use of Color

Triadic color schemes are just one of many color combinations you can create using the color wheel. If you’d like to master your use of color, be sure to familiarize yourself with other principles of color theory and practice implementing them in your projects. No matter what type of visual media you work with, color will always be one of the most important elements and knowing how to use it effectively can make all the difference.

Written By

Sayana Lam

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