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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 5 of 18

The Graphic Designer's Tools: Color


Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 5 of 18

The Graphic Designer's Tools: Color


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


  1. Introduction to Graphic Design

    What exactly do graphic designers do? What is the overall goal of design? We see many products that designers create - from logos, to t-shirts, to newsletters and invitations - yet what do graphic artists actually do to produce these products? What design skills do they use and what factors influence their decisions? What roles do graphic designers play in business, the economy, and within communities?

  2. Graphic Design: Areas of Specialization

    With the advent of technology, not only have tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator transformed the graphic designer’s process of creation, but the possibilities of design have expanded into far reaching areas. Timothy gives a quick overview of areas of specialization as a graphic designer; from editorial design to wayfinding, and advertising to motion graphics and branding, learn about the possibilities the field offers.

  3. The History of Graphic Design

    History repeats itself. Learn about the evolution of graphic design and the origins of many of today’s design trends. Timothy takes you on a fascinating journey through the 36,000 year old history of graphic design, from cave paintings to the Industrial Revolution in New York, to the arts and crafts movement in England to the birth of Modernism, Bauhaus, and the development of corporate identity. How has visual language evolved from past to present?

  4. The Designer's Toolkit

    Every designer carries a basic toolkit of the fundamental graphic elements in a design - these are the elements a designer plays with and manipulates to create a final product, be it a web page or a series of comic books. Starting with form and image: how do graphic designers choose the images they use? How do geometric and organic forms influence a design? How do designers use form and image to create a narrative, or meaning?

  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?

  6. The Graphic Designers Tools: Typography

    Sometimes overlooked, typography is essential to user experience; the right combination of factors can create a comfortable and engaging experience that piques your audience’s interest. How can you use typography to guide your audience’s attention and best communicate your message?

  7. The Graphic Designer's Tools: Layout & Space

    Graphic design is made up of different, and at times competing elements: typography and imagery. How do you merge these to create harmonious and compelling visual compositions? You will learn how to manipulate space in your design and organize elements to influence how your audience reads your message.

  8. Typical Work Processes

    You have a project - now where do you start? Creative processes differ from person to person, however the typical design process goes through the same stages: research, ideation, refinement, and execution. Timothy describes the factors to consider at each stage.

  9. Designing an Advertisment

    Witness Timothy’s graphic design skills in full force as he takes you through the journey of a project from his own professional portfolio: an advertisement for an expo. Timothy demonstrates the iterative process, from image selection to concept sketches to color manipulation, and his reasoning behind every decision along the way. He calls to attention an important factor in editorial design - on what scale and in what format will this advertisement live, and how does this affect the design?

  10. Designing a Poster

    What unique opportunities does poster design offer? How does the size of media affect a reader’s experience? Timothy walks you through his process of designing a poster for a theatrical performance and the more complex concept and image development this design work requires. We see surprises and new ideas surface through the process of refinement, as well as the value of broad research.

  11. Designing a Book Layout: Basic Concepts

    Timothy designs the layout of a book, a retrospective of an artist’s work. He raises and answers compelling questions throughout the process: How do you work with multiple stakeholders on a single project? How do you turn limitations into positive challenges? How do you problem-solve when a client is not satisfied? How does using a layout grid actually create, rather than hinder flexibility? Timothy shows you how to explore compositional ideas within the format of a book with extensive images and text.

  12. Designing a Book Layout: The Details

    Typeface, alignment, transitions, even the color of the cloth of a hardbound book: these are all factors in cover to cover book design. Timothy demonstrates the process of creating a book cover in line with his client’s artistic vision, finalizing the process, and bringing the project to execution.

  13. Designing a Website

    Web design presents a playground of opportunity: how does interactivity influence design? How do page layout, flow, and navigation affect the user experience? How does hierarchy, or the order in which the audience perceives information, translate into the interactive context? Timothy takes us through a web design project; we see his research process, concept sketching, use of grids, and problem-solving in the context of a web page.

  14. How to Design a Brand Identity: Preperation

    Graphic design at full volume is the creation of brand identity. Timothy models beginning the process of designing a brand identity for a client with the core component: the logo. What are the best research practices for logo design? How do you create a powerful logo? Does it need to communicate a message? How do you problem-solve for its applications in various forms of media?

  15. How to Design Brand Identity: Showing the Client

    Timothy shares his best tips for working with a client in logo design. How many options should you present and in what context? How do you involve your client in the problem-solving and refinement process?

  16. Building Brand Language

    Brand identity may start with a logo, but a logo is just one part of a brand - it needs to exist within a world with context. Timothy models how to flesh out the rest of a brand’s visual language, from website content to color palettes, icons, and taglines.

  17. Designing the Touchpoints

    If you want to take your client’s brand to its audience and not only increase exposure, but build and strengthen the relationship between brand and customer, you need to design brand touchpoints. Packaging, letterheads, and business cards all add to the narrative. How can you develop a simple and effective advertising system?

  18. Fundamentals are Forever

    Timothy closes where he begins - with the fundamentals. What is the mission of the designer? What can you learn from the history of the discipline? How will trusting the process of discovery push your practice to the next level?


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.