How many colors should you use in your designs?

There is no fixed answer to this question and a good designer can get away with almost any number of colors. In general, however, the risk of using too many colors is greater than the risk of using too few.

A color scheme with many colors is difficult to manage well and will often make the design look too busy. On the other hand, too few colors can make the design look boring. This is not always the case, however, we have seen masterful designs using only two colors.

triadic color schemeTry to make your design with only three colors

A three color combination is a good starting point. This is enough to create variation and visual interest. A triadic color scheme where the colors are equally spaced around the color circle is a good choice for beginners because it is easy to get good results. The split complimentary color scheme is another good alternative.

Apply the 60 - 30 - 10 rule for success

You should not use equal amounts of the three colors. An old designer's rule is to divide the colors into percentages of 60, 30, and 10.

60 - 30 - 10 balance

The primary color should cover about 60% of the space and create the overall unifying theme of the design. Then add about 30% of the secondary color to create contrast and visual interest. Finally use about 10% of the accent color to provide that final touch of elegance.

A good example of this distribution of color is a man's business suit: 60% of the outfit is made up of the slacks and jacket. The shirt represents 30%, and the tie 10%.


Need more colors?

Sometimes a design require more than three colors. This is especially true for content rich web pages, brochures, etc where you need to visually separate side bars, captions, tables etc from other content. A good alternative is to use shades and tints of your main colors. You can easily do this in ColorImpact using the color variations mode:

  1. Drag one or more colors to the top row.
  2. To find a light background color, set the variation type to "Less saturated and lighter". For a dark color, use variation type "darker" or "more saturated and darker".
  3. Set the "Steps" setting to 16 and the "Variation strength" to 1.00.
  4. Pick one or more variation colors and add them to the color palette.

The example below illustrates how this technique can be used to create a colored table using shades and tints.

How to create a colored table using shades and tints