What types of color palettes should I create for an application?


  • For an application, you will consider creating monochromatic, analogous, complementary, triadic, neutral, or accented color palettes.
  • Monochromatic palettes use shades of a single color for a clean look, making them a great choice for minimalistic designs and focusing attention on content. 
  • Analogous schemes use colors next to each other on the color wheel for harmony, making them ideal for brands looking to evoke feelings of freshness, growth, or harmony. 
  • Complementary palettes offer high contrast with colors opposite on the wheel, suitable for highlighting elements like call-to-action buttons or important navigation elements. 
  • Triadic schemes use three evenly spaced colors for vibrant contrasts, perfect for applications needing differentiation between elements without sacrificing harmony. They can be challenging to work with but make designs interesting when executed correctly. 
  • Neutral palettes focus on shades like beige and gray, allowing vibrant colors to pop. They are ideal for applications relying on photography or colorful content to take center stage. 
  • Accented palettes mix neutrals with vivid colors to draw attention to key elements or actions, such as buttons or alerts, creating visually interesting designs.
  • Advanced designers can certainly explore split complementary, double-complementary (tetradic), and custom app color palettes as they experiment and refine their understanding of color combinations and user psychology.

Deep dive

A well-thought-out color palette is key to visual unity, brand identity, and guiding users through an interface, all of which improve the user experience. We'll break down different color schemes using a color wheel, a handy tool that shows how colors relate to each other.

Here are the types of color palettes you will consider.

Illustration of six color schemes on color wheels: monochromatic, analogous, complementary, triadic, split complementary, tetradic, square.

Monochromatic palette

Monochromatic web design color palettes are the simplest ones. They are made up of different shades, tones, and tints of a specific hue. This simplicity makes them a great choice for minimalistic designs, focusing attention on the content. The designs look clean and elegant. 

To prevent the design from becoming dull, integrating neutrals like white or black can add depth and make the design interesting.

Webinar dashboard displaying survey feedback with various question tabs and graph type options for data presentation.

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Analogous palette

Analogous palette is the next suitable option for beginners. It uses colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, typically sharing the same chroma level. 

To effectively use this palette, select a dominant color and complement it with hues that are next to it on the color wheel.  Adding various tones, shades, and tints can enhance the design's depth. Analogous color palettes, which avoid high-contrast colors, are ideal for creating a soft, unified design. They work well for brands looking to evoke feelings of freshness, growth, or harmony.

Displays on monitor and mobile showing real estate analytics with comparative data and options to download detailed reports.

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Complementary palette

A complementary palette combines colors opposite each other on the color wheel. It usually consists of two colors but you can complement it with tones, tints, and shades. 

This palette is great for creating high contrast, making it suitable for call-to-action buttons or important navigation elements. It’s effective in drawing attention but should be used carefully to avoid visual fatigue. To avoid it, you can leave negative space or add another, transitional color between two opposite colors.

Display of a website and mobile app interface for an online store, showing products and promotions in a clean, organized layout.

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Triadic palette

A triadic palette involves colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. This palette offers vibrant and contrasting colors. It's perfect for web applications that need differentiation between elements without sacrificing harmony. Working with triadic color schemes can be a bit challenging, but when done correctly, it makes the design interesting.

Monitor displays Airtable's webpage, emphasizing workflow optimization with AI, featuring a vibrant 3D diagram.

Neutral palette

A neutral palette incorporates various shades of neutral colors like beige, gray, and white. This palette creates a background that allows more vibrant colors to stand out. It's ideal for applications that rely on photography or other colorful content to take center stage.

Screenshot of a real estate agent's digital dashboard, displaying property listings, analytics, and agent profile information.

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Accented palette

The accented palette combines neutral shades with a few vivid colors. This approach allows for a visually interesting design that uses bright colors to direct users’ attention to specific elements or actions, such as buttons or alerts.

Tablet screen displaying a project management interface with tabs for tracking work assignments, showing progress bars and task details.

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These color palettes are focused on the most commonly used and universally applicable schemes with a balance between simplicity, usability, and aesthetic appeal for a wide range of applications. 

Advanced designers can certainly explore split complementary, double-complementary (tetradic), and custom app color palettes as they experiment and refine their understanding of color combinations and user psychology. They are rich and offer many possibilities for creating vibrant and diverse interfaces. However, they require careful handling to avoid visual clutter and maintain coherence across the design. 

When choosing color palettes for an app, consider the type of product, the brand's identity, the target audience, and the emotions you want to evoke. Aim for a balanced mix of primary and accent colors that enhance readability, convey the desired mood, and maintain accessibility.  

Pro tip: Consider creating alternative color themes, such as "dark mode" or "high contrast" to meet different user preferences and visual needs.

Document your color palettes in a style guide or design system to ensure consistent usage across the application and facilitate collaboration among team members.

❓Questions designers should ask themselves

By asking the right questions, designers can question their decisions, find areas to improve, make sure nothing is overlooked, and reduce mistakes, leading to better, more thoughtful designs.

  • Do we have brand guidelines? 
  • What types of visualizations may be needed? 
  • Are our brand colors accessible? Do the color combinations meet WCAG 2.1 contrast ratio requirements?
  • Have I considered the cultural and psychological implications of the color choices?
  • Do the colors effectively guide users' attention and support the intended visual hierarchy?
  • Are the colors used consistently throughout the application, including different states and interactions?
  • Have I provided sufficient color differentiation for color-blind users?
  • Are the colors optimized for different devices and lighting conditions?
  • Have I tested the color palette with users to gather feedback and insights?

⚠️ Common mistakes to avoid

Learning from your mistakes is important, but many problems can indeed be predicted and avoided. Based on Cieden's collective expertise, we're sharing the most common ones.

Using too many colors, leading to visual clutter and confusion.

  • Relying solely on color to convey information, neglecting the needs of color-blind users.
  • Ignoring cultural differences and associations when selecting colors for a global audience.
  • Using low-contrast color combinations that hinder readability and accessibility.
  • Overusing bright or saturated colors, which can cause eye strain and fatigue.
  • Inconsistently applying colors across the application, leading to a disjointed user experience.
  • Neglecting to test color palettes with users to validate design choices.
  • Failing to provide alternative themes or high-contrast options for users with visual impairments.

👥 How to convince stakeholders

One of the most crucial skills for a designer is being able to explain and back up their ideas. If you're having a hard time convincing stakeholders, take a look at our tips to help you communicate better.

  • Focus on the strategic benefits and user-centric rationale behind your design decisions. Highlighting how the proposed color palette aligns with the brand identity and target audience, emphasizing the importance of creating a consistent and recognizable visual language. 
  • Use real-life examples of successful business applications that effectively use color to create trust, credibility, and a professional appearance.
  • Emphasize the accessibility and usability benefits of your color choices. Share insights from UX research and case studies that demonstrate how well-designed color palettes can improve task performance, reduce cognitive load, and enhance overall user satisfaction. 
  • Use data-driven arguments, such as citing the percentage of users with color vision deficiencies and the potential legal and reputational risks associated with inaccessible design.
  • Highlight the cost-saving potential of creating a scalable and consistent color system. By documenting color guidelines in a style guide or design system, designers can streamline the design process, reduce inconsistencies, and facilitate collaboration among team members. This approach not only saves time and resources but also ensures a cohesive user experience across the application.
  • Propose an iterative approach to implementing the color palette, starting with high-priority areas and gradually rolling out changes to minimize disruption. 
  • Offer to conduct user testing and gather feedback to validate design choices and make data-informed refinements.

🛠️ Useful tools 

These tools will make your job easier and more effective.

  • Adobe Color – create color themes, extract themes and gradients, and check color accessibility. 
  • Paletton – use a tool that creates palettes based on the primary color. 
  • Canva Color Palette Generator – create palettes from the photos. 
  • ColorHunt – explore a resource with color palettes created by other designers worldwide (a nice source of inspiration). 
  • ColorBox by Lyft – use an AI-powered tool to generate accessible color palettes based on a brand's existing colors, ensuring compliance with WCAG contrast ratios. The tool also provides a visual representation of how the colors will appear to users with different types of color vision deficiencies.
  • Khroma – benefit from another AI-based tool that generates color palettes based on user preferences and keywords. It also provides insights into the psychological associations of each color.
  • ColorBrewer – create color schemes optimized for data visualization. The tool is developed by cartography experts.

🤝 Credits

Our content combines the knowledge of Cieden’s designers with insights from industry influencers. Big thanks to all the influencers for sharing awesome content!

Color Theory for Designers, Part 3: How To Create Your Own Color Schemes by Cameron Chapman 

📚 Keep exploring 

Never stop growing. Explore resources thoughtfully handpicked by Cieden’s designers. 

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