Colour schemes

To some degree, “the arts” are fields where the key measure of success is creating something that is pleasing to people’s senses. For instance, musicians combine sounds to please our ears; master chefs combine foods to please our taste; while artists combine shape and color to satisfy our eyes.

But the arts often go beyond pleasing the senses, such as provoking thought, entertaining, propagating ideologies, evoking sensory dissonance or overload the senses.

In this section, I’ll discuss using color for harmony and dissonance.

Calm color combinations

The research on aesthetically pleasing colors deals more with related colors, such as contrasting colors or similar colors. So a good starting point for establishing pleasurable color combinations is the color wheel, which is typically used for this exact purpose.

Figure 7 shows color combinations based on the color wheel which you can use to guide your colors palette selection, aiming for pleasing colors, that work together, aid contrast, and generally feel comfortable on the eyes.

There are so many books, blogs, and palette generators, that there is no point in me covering how to combine colors. Instead, let’s leave it here by thinking about color palette generators as ways of producing harmonious, but not necessarily functional color combinations 

Figure 7. Color combinations

Stressed color combinations

While some color combinations feel easy on the eyes, others feel strained. Perhaps the best-known way to strain users’ eyes with color is an effect called chromostereopsis, shown in Figure 8. This is the wobbly optical illusion that people experience when they look at two colors that are far apart on the color spectrum.

Red and green appear close together on the color wheel, and according to color theory, they should be nice complementary colors. But if you look at them on the color spectrum, in Figure 9, you’ll see that they’re quite far apart.

Chromostereopsis emerges when one color reaches the eye slightly faster than the other, due to different wavelengths. This creates an optical illusion where one color appears closer than the other.

Figure 8. Chromostereopsis

I’m not into creative dogma, such as “thou shalt not do X”. I disagree with those who preach that chromostereopsis needs to be hunted down and destroyed. Instead, I advocate understanding it and deciding to use it or not depending on whether it will advance or undermine your design goals.

When I want to achieve a pleasing design effect, I try to eliminate anything that even feels like chromostereopsis. However, I have used in intentionally in the past to attract attention, as a parody of lousy design, and as a technique to create an edgy feel—but I’ve had disagreements with others who prefer to avoid it at all costs.

As I see it, if it helps you achieve a goal use it; if it undermines that goal, avoid it; end of story.

Figure 9. Chromostereopsis one the color spectrum