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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 5 of 18

The Graphic Designer's Tools: Color

Timothy Samara

Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

5. The Graphic Designer's Tools: Color
Color is a dynamic tool. What elements of color can be adjusted, and how does this impact overall design and the effect on your audience? What relationships do colors have with each other and how do you choose a palette? What biological changes do our bodies go through when we perceive color - and how do you harness the power of color as a designer?

Lesson Info

The Graphic Designer's Tools: Color

So the next of course, is color. We can identify color, because of it's various aspects. First off, whether it appears to us initially, at a glance, as either orange or blue. We can talk about that same color in terms of how vivid or dull it is. It's saturation. We can talk about the color feeling as though it's either cooler or warmer. This blue is a warmer blue than this blue. And so we say that there is a kind of a temperature to color. And then last is, we can also identify color because of it's relative lightness or darkness, that is it's value. Color is relative. One color in different situations will appear to be different colors. And so, try this trick at home. Stare at these colors and then watch how this, which is absolutely the same color in all four cases, actually changes. Some of them will appear darker to you. Some of those yellows will appear less vibrant. And the same thing will happen over here. Some of those violets, which are If you're staring at the small square?

Yeah, if you're staring at the small square. In this field, because of it's relationship to what surrounds it, it actually changes. And this is also a kind of a weird, fun game you can play with your audience. And if you look at these four internal squares of violet, those are also empirically the same color. But you'll see that some of them seem a little bit darker or a little bit duller or a little bit brighter or a little bit more in the foreground or a little bit more in the background. In order to know what those relationships are, you have to also understand this, which is the color wheel. It's a diagram for mapping wavelengths of color, and how the hues interact with each other on an optical level. And because of where colors, by virtue of their wavelengths, are situated in that relationship around the wheel, is that different kinds of interaction occur between them. And they have different names. So colors that are next to each other on the color wheel are referred to as having an analogous relationship, that is they're closely related. Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, like red and green, are referred to as complements. And they essentially cancel each other out. That is, if you mix them together in light, they become white, and if you mix them together in paint or ink, they become a kind of a gray, yucky color. But what's interesting about the complementary relationship is that because of this opposing nature of the wavelengths, and which rods and cones they fire off in response to each other in the eyes, is that they actually create, as a pair, the most dynamic optical experience of color that you can achieve. Even of greater dynamism than the contrast relationship between black and white. And then, last is the triadic or split complement relationship and that's where colors are united or related by their position at 120 degrees from each other. So it's almost like the complement but then kind of veering off a little bit and adding another for fun. Choosing palettes. Where do you start? You can look at choosing a palette for a project from an optical standpoint. That is to kind of go through okay I'm gonna mix pure complements or the complements but change the saturation. Or maybe a split complement, or maybe I'm gonna make them analogous. And then start to look at what happens with more subtle changes once you've defined a particular relationship that seems relevant or appealing in some way. You can use color to alter photography, as we've seen already. In print, in particular, color can be very, very flexible on a press. And is a lot of fun to play with. And as you limit the color palette, discarding the carnival of colors of reality, and focus people's attention on one or two very specific relationships, the color experience becomes that much more memorable and captivating. Color, of course, is evocative of mood. There's a lot of psychology attendant to color. We associate colors with different kinds of feelings. A lot of those feelings result from biological changes that we undergo when we perceive color. I always like to talk about red in particular, 'cause it's the funnest, and it also gets the most reaction physically. And that is that red, the wavelength of red, travels at such am amplitude that it is very slow and it's very difficult for our optical system to process. And as a result, it causes our metabolism to increase. Our brain fires off hormones in order to generate more energy from our bodies in order to process that information. Because it's so far at the end of the visible spectrum. And as a result of that, that increase in energy is a kind of a rush, and we will perceive that color red as relating to fighting, fleeing, danger, violence, hunger and sometimes arousal. Color also has conventions. There are symbolic relationships that our culture makes between certain kinds of colors and certain kinds of activities or organizations or businesses. We always have to be aware of those, because whenever you're talking to a particular audience, you are working within a framework of their understanding of things. But it is an interesting kind of thing to take note.

Class Description


  • Identify and apply fundamental graphic design elements
  • Add essential design skills to your toolkit
  • Approach and manage the creative process through varied projects


You don’t need to have a background in fine arts or be an Adobe InDesign whiz to create compelling designs. In this class, Timothy Samara takes you back to the fundamentals of graphic design - the same principles he has consistently returned to in his 25-year career.

Through real-world projects, you’ll learn the basics of:

  • Form and image
  • Color theory
  • Typography
  • Layout and composition

Most unique about Timothy’s class is his demonstration of how design theory manifests in actual projects; he cracks open his professional portfolio and takes you into the world of how real designers work. With an extensive career behind him, Timothy’s design services have spanned from web design to print media, to interface design, and to building brand identity. By walking through Timothy’s creative process, you not only see how design elements interact and impact an overall product, but you get a rare view of the problem-solving graphic designers do and the decisions they make. What rules exist and when are they broken? How do you juggle meticulous research vs. spontaneity?

Whether you want to design a poster, flyer, or logo - this class will give you the insights you need to design with confidence. Welcome to the art and science of graphic design.


This class is designed for beginner and intermediate graphic designers as well as more experienced designers looking for a brush-up on design principles, career-changers, marketing team members, and anyone interested in graphic design fundamentals.


Timothy Samara is a New York-based graphic designer and educator whose twenty-five career has so far focused on visual identity and branding, communication design, and typography. Since 2000, he has split his time between professional practice and academia, defining a highly respected reputation as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, Parsons/The New School for Design, Purchase College SUNY, New York University, The University of the Arts, and Fashion Institute of Technology. Mr. Samara is a frequent university lecturer and contributor to design publications both in the U.S. and abroad. He has written eight books on design to date (all from Rockport Publishers), which have been translated into ten languages and are used by students and practitioners around the world.

Connect with Timothy online: LinkedIn

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a Creativelive Student

Wonderful class! I loved getting the info as to the creative process. Great!

sixtina maculan

Thank you for sharing your experiences in this class. It's been a pleasure to listen, learn and understand, as well as a wonderful motivation.

Øyvind Hermans

I love this class, clear and precise information with very interesting examples. I have worked as a graphic designer for 6 years but have no design eduction, so at times I feel like there is these gaps of design-knowlegde in my decisions, this was the perfect filler of these gaps.