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How do you structure a color palette?

Choosing the right colors for your design project can be tricky. Having a structured approach to building a color palette will help you select colors that work well together and support your design goals. In this article, we’ll walk through the key steps for creating an effective color palette.

Determine the color palette purpose

First, think about the overall purpose of your design project and what you want the colors to communicate. Some examples:

  • Branding colors for a company logo
  • Webpage color scheme
  • Mobile app interface
  • Infographic on a specific topic

If it’s for branding, you’ll want to consider what colors best represent the brand personality and values. For web and app interfaces, you’ll want colors that look good on screens and are usable for long periods of time. Knowing the purpose upfront helps guide your color choices.

Select a base color

Once you know the purpose, it’s time to choose a base color, which is the dominant color of the palette. This is often the color used most prominently throughout the design. Some tips for picking a base color:

  • Consider your brand colors if applicable
  • Pick a color that aligns with the theme or topic area
  • Make sure it’s distinguishable if used for text
  • Avoid overused colors like red, blue, green unless they strongly suit your brand

You can start by browsing color inspiration online to find potential base color options. Shortlist 2-3 colors and view them in sample designs to decide on the best fit.

Choose a secondary color

Next, select a secondary color that complements and contrasts well with your base color. You have a few options here:

  • Complementary – Pick a color opposite your base on the color wheel (e.g. blue and orange)
  • Triadic – Select colors that form a triangle on the color wheel with your base color (e.g. red, yellow, blue)
  • Analogous – Choose colors next to your base color on the wheel (e.g. blue, blue-violet, violet)
  • Monochromatic – Different shades, tints, and tones of your base color (e.g. light blue, regular blue, dark blue)

A complementary or triadic scheme creates more color contrast, while analogous and monochromatic are more subtle. Test out some combinations to see what looks best with your base color.

Add an accent color

You can expand the palette further by introducing an accent orneutral color. This color is used more sparingly to highlight interactive elements, call attention to important content areas, or provide visual separation:

  • For an accent color, pick something bold and saturated like yellow, orange, or pink
  • For a neutral, choose a gray, beige, black, or white

Just be sure the accent color feels connected to the base color so it doesn’t look arbitrarily added. Having an accent or neutral color gives you more flexibility in how you use color in the design.

Decide on light and dark variants

At this point you should have 3-5 colors selected. The last step is to expand on these colors by adding lighter and darker variants. This helps create visual hierarchy, contrast, and depth throughout the design. Here are some tips:

  • Add a tint of your base color by mixing in up to 30% white
  • Create a shade by mixing in up to 30% black
  • You can also desaturate colors for muted, grayscale versions
  • Use darker variants for typography and dividing lines
  • Apply lighter tints as background colors behind text

Make sure to keep these variants harmonious by only adjusting the saturation, brightness, and lightness of the original hues. With all the color variations, you now have a diverse palette to work with.

Review and finalize your palette

As a final check, review your full palette in the context of your design:

  • Do the colors feel cohesive and purposeful together?
  • Is there enough contrast between colors used for text and backgrounds?
  • Are there any competing hues that don’t complement each other?
  • Does each color contribute something useful to the overall scheme?

Make any tweaks needed to improve the palette. Having a solid base of colors to work from will give your design direction and visual impact. Now you’re ready to start applying the palette to your project!

Tips for applying your color palette

Here are some tips for effectively working with your color palette as you create your designs:

  • Use your base color most prominently as it will set the overall tone
  • Try different combinations like complementary, triadic, or monochromatic to see what looks best
  • Add your accent and neutral colors sparingly to make them stand out
  • Use darker shades for headlines and dividing lines between sections
  • Apply lighter tints to make certain elements recede into the background
  • Make sure text contrasts well with background colors
  • Balance saturated intense colors with muted ones so things don’t become overwhelming

Following your palette will help maintain visual alignment across your project. But don’t be afraid to deviate if you find an alternative colors that works better. It takes experimentation to learn how colors interact and impact the overall design.

Tools for creating color palettes

There are many helpful tools available for building color palettes. Here are some top options:

Tool Key Features
Adobe Color Create, browse, and share themes; supports HEX, RGB, and LAB color formats
Coolors Drag and drop generation, space to save and organize palettes
Paletton Shows palette complimentary, triadic, and tetradic options Uses AI to generate palettes based on color vision principles
Khroma Browse thousands of premade palettes for inspiration

The key is finding a tool that allows you to easily build, visualize, and export color palettes. This streamlines the process so you can focus on selecting the right colors.


Creating a structured color palette takes planning, but pays off through designs with colors that aesthetically fit together. By following the steps outlined, you can develop harmonious palettes tailored to your specific project needs. Combining color theory best practices with your own experimentation and intuition will lead to palettes that effectively communicate the right visual message.