Pick a color, any color

You’ve decided that you’re going to get T-shirts for your team, tote bags for your store, or stress balls for your tradeshow. Now the fun part begins, but navigating color interaction can also be daunting. There are a million micro decisions involved in the design with the interaction of color being a vital one. Color sets the tone, which makes design and color interaction important.

Humans can see over 2.8 million colors. So, where does one begin?

The power of color interaction

Color interaction is such a powerful thing that color schemes used in marketing products can be copyrighted. Color can increase brand recognition by up to 80%.

The interaction of color

Color used to be thought of as something mysterious and color theory was simply how a color made someone feel. Luckily for us, color has been studied extensively since then and we can select colors using science. These parameters help us immensely, though we should still take a cue from the past and give our stamp of approval based on taste and, yes, if it feels right.

Guided by color interaction

Color theory principles as we know them started in the 18th century. You may have studied color theory in elementary school when your art teacher talked about the color wheel: Primary colors and secondary colors. Tertiary colors may have filled your box of crayons if you got the big box. 

Additive and subtractive color mixing

You can create color by using additive or subtractive methods.

Additive color refers to when light is mixed, like at a rock concert or club. This is why objects look different colors under different colored lighting. Think of the picture of the dress that people couldn’t agree on if its colors were black and blue or white and gold!

Printing on clothing and other fabrics uses the subtractive method. When a medium, such as screen printing on a T-shirt, is applied onto a surface it is subtractive because the surface color is absorbing the light of its inherent colors and reflecting the light of everything it doesn’t absorb. For example, if an object is green, it absorbs all colors of light except for green, reflecting the green into our eyes and making it appear to us as green.

Additive versus subtractive color

Additive color

Courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AdditiveColor.svg


Subtractive color

Courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subtractive_color


Why does this matter?

When you’re designing your apparel using a screen printing application it’s important to keep in mind how your final product will look if you have different layers of color overlapping. 

Colors’ subtleties

Do you ever go shopping for pants to match your sweater at home, only to find out that it doesn’t quite match? There are three main ways that color subtly shifts.

  1. Lightness
  2. Saturation
  3. Hue

Lightness refers to light versus dark. To change lightness, either white or black is added respectively.

Saturation refers to intense versus dull. Perhaps you’ve taken a photo that’s underexposed and you’ve changed the saturation on the computer to make it easier to see – to give it more punch!

Hue refers to the combination of colors that make up that specific color. For example, a greenish-blue and how green or blue it is.

Complementary colors

Courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CPT-Websites-monochrome.svg

Primary, secondary, and tertiary colors

Conceived by a French chemist, Chevreul’s law of color contrast suggests that yellow on a blue background will appear tinted orange, because blue and orange are complementary colors.

Warm versus cool

How do you want your design to feel? Warm colors look like a fire or the sun during the day. Cool colors look like a glacier or snow on a cold night. Warm colors range from red to yellow. Cool colors range from green to violet.

Warm colors appear to come forward in pictures, while cool colors tend to recede.

Color schemes

A color scheme is the colors chosen for a design. It is important to consider design and color interaction in order to select the best color combination for your project. There are a number of approaches to selecting pleasing colors, including:

  • Basic
  • Complementary
  • Split complementary
  • Triadic
  • Tetradic
  • Analogous
  • Accented analogous
  • Monochromatic
  • Achromatic
  • Polychromatic


A basic color scheme uses two colors.

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are opposite of each other on the color wheel and are good if you want strong contrast.

Complementary colors:

  • Yellow and violet
  • Orange and blue
  • Red and green


Also referred to as compound harmony, this color scheme uses complementary colors but adds on two analogous colors (colors adjacent to one of the complementary colors).

Triadic colors

Triadic color schemes use three colors equally spaced around the color wheel. They are vibrant.

Tetradic colors

The tetradic color scheme uses double complementary colors. That is, four colors comprised of two sets of complementary colors. This scheme typically selects one of the colors to be dominant to achieve balance.


Also called dominance harmony, this color scheme uses several colors next to each other on the color wheel, such as red, orange, and yellow. Usually one of the primary or secondary colors is chosen to be dominant. Analogous looks similar to monochromatic, but more colorful. Typically only warm or cool colors are chosen to be in the scheme.

Accented analogous

An accented analogous color scheme is an analogous one that introduces a complementary color. For example, adding blue as an accent color to the analogous color scheme of orange, red, and yellow. This scheme often uses a warm accent color with a cool pallet or vice versa.

Monochromatic colors

Monochromatic color

Courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CPT-Websites-monochrome.svg

Monochromatic colors are a group of colors with the same hue but with different tints, tones, and shades. Monochromatic colors range from light to dark. For example, white, light gray, gray, dark gray, and black are a monochromatic color scheme. Light greenish-blue, greenish-blue, and dark greenish-blue would be another monochromatic color scheme. Take a color and add white, black, or gray!

Achromatic colors

Colors with a subtler chromatic look are referred to as:

  • Achromatic
  • Unsaturated
  • Near neutral
  • Neutral

Pure achromatic or neutral colors include black, grays, and white.

Near neutrals include browns, tans, pastels, and dark colors. Near neutrals are made by mixing a color with white, black, or grey; or by mixing two complementary colors.

When placing a color next to a neutral, the neutral color will often appear to have a slight cast of the adjacent color’s complementary color. For example, when placed next to red, gray appears greenish.

Polychromatic colors

Polychromatic means having several colors.

Color theory at the Bauhaus

Joseph Albers studied color theory at the Bauhaus, an art school in Germany.

Josef Albers’s interaction of color

In 1963, Albers published his seminal book Interaction of Color. Albers argued that color is seen relationally. Found in the book, the green screen shape below looks like two different shades of green, even though they are exactly the same green. The green is interacting with its respective backgrounds, with each background color influencing the green differently.

Interaction of Color plate

Courtesy: http://cs.brown.edu/courses/cs092/VA10/HTML/AlbersExplanation.html


Another plate in the book, below, shows how our minds work when observing pictures. The image appears to be four squares with a folded transparent square on top. Albers did not use transparent colors. Instead, he chose colors to give the illusion of transparency. Again, with color interaction, everything is relative!


Interaction of Color plate

Courtesy: http://cs.brown.edu/courses/cs092/VA10/HTML/AlbersExplanation.html


One Color Appears as Two

Courtesy: http://cs.brown.edu/courses/cs092/VA10/HTML/Plate1Explanation.html


Above is an example of Albers’s color interaction exercises.

Albers devised color interaction exercises for his art students where they used swatches of color. Students picked a color, cut it into two pieces, and found two other color swatches to put behind each piece.

The goal was to make the original color swatch look like two different colors just by changing its background. Colors set next to other colors can dramatically change how a specific color looks simply by its relationship to other colors. Depending on the colors, the color interaction can have negligible to dramatic effects. 

Color interaction ideas for your design

Classic color combos

Black and white

It’s classic and sophisticated.

Red and gold

Create a warm palette.

Green and yellow

A classic pair evoking nature.

Pink and green

Another classic.

Pink and brown

Give your design an earthy feel.

Green and blue

A versatile duo. 

Color inspiration tips

Three is key

Unless you’re going for a tie-dye look or are creating a Rainbow Brite costume for an 80’s dance party, it’s best to stick with three or four colors. Not only will it be cheaper to print, limiting colors can spur you to come up with more creative solutions. It also doesn’t overwhelm the viewer.

Balance color and shape

Designers say that color schemes for rectangles are successful with a dominant color and squares are good when all colors are equal. Keep this in mind when designing your shirts. Do you want one dominant color? Are your colors balanced in equal parts? What does your design demand?

Coordinate color with content

What mood do you want to convey that would add to the shirt’s message? Maybe a ballet group has more subtle colors and a retail company uses bright colors so employees can stand out to customers. If the event is serious, such as raising an awareness of health concerns, you might not want loud colors.

Also make sure the colors aren’t already associated with something else. Certain hues of bright orange and blue are associated with laundry detergents. Put together certain shades of green and red and people will ask you if you’re celebrating Christmas in July.

Look at paintings and find one that evokes the mood you’re after. What colors did the artist use?

Write down words that you want your design to convey and ask if the colors are serving that purpose.

Color swatches

Look at a physical color swatches rather than a screen so you get a better sense of what it’s really going to look like. If your computer isn’t calibrated to online color swatches, you could end up with a color different than the one you thought you were selecting.

Take pictures

With cameras built into nearly every device, there’s no excuse not to snap a picture of something you find beautiful. What makes you attracted to it? When you answer that, you gain insight into what you would appreciate in a T-shirt design.

Look to nature

Nature is wonderful. Take a closer look at the landscape, foliage, and animals around you. Does a flower have an interesting color combination?

Learn from interior design

You don’t want to blend in with your sofa. You don’t want friends to ask if you’re hard up for cash because your fashion inspiration came from the Sound of Music’s clothes made from curtains. However, good design is good design and there is plenty you can learn from other design disciplines. Check out magazines of home interiors or interior design makeover shows. 

Note: Interior designers typically use 60% of a dominant color, 30% of a secondary color, and 10% of an accent color in their designs. Don’t hold it as a hard and fast rule, but keep it in mind.

Keep what inspires you

Look for inspiration everywhere. Whether it’s old or new, online or tactile ephemera, there are millions of things in the world sure to inspire you.


Pinterest has hosts of color palette examples. Why not take a look? You’ll probably find something you like! 

Pinterest sites of interest

  1. Summer pastels
  2. Icy nature
  3. Purple sunset
  4. At the beach
  5. Pastel rocks
  6. Understated flowers
  7. Fall leaves
  8. Old building inspiration
  9. The sea
  10. A gray day

Go forth!

Color interaction can transform a design. Be aware, intentional, and ask for second opinions.

We can help!

At T.R. McTaggart, we pride ourselves on making aesthetically-pleasing quality apparel. Our designers are happy to discuss how color interaction plays into your design, palette choice, and ultimately what will make your apparel and promotional items give the right impression and have the highest impact. Contact T.R. McTaggart today to discuss all your design and color interaction projects and questions!