Learn to Spot Clashing Colors Used in Graphic Design

A Good Example of Opposites That Attract

Learn How to Use a Color Wheel
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Contrasting colors or complementary colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel can be described as clashing colors. Colors that clash are not necessarily a bad combination in print design; they are high contrast, high visibility pairings that demand attention.

In color theory, contrasting colors are exactly opposite from each other on the color wheel. In design, we tend to use the terms complementary or clashing more loosely than in the strict scientific color theory sense. Colors within a small range on the opposite side of the color wheel—usually the color on each side of the color directly opposite—can be considered opposites, not just a specific color pair. Call it artistic license.

Although it sounds jarring, sometimes clashing colors can work together in a design depending on the amount of color and how close they appear together on the page or screen—too close together and clashing colors may appear to vibrate and overwhelm the viewer.

Clashing colors don't have to be used at their full strength to be effective. Making the colors lighter, darker or muted may fit better in your design while still lending pleasant contrast.

Using Clashing Colors

Common color combinations that use two, three or four contrasting colors are described as complementary, double complementary, triad, and split-complementary color schemes. The two-color complementary combination usually uses two high-contrast or clashing colors.

Each additive primary color pairs up nicely with a complementary subtractive primary color to create pairs of contrasting or clashing colors. Vary the shades of additional complementary colors with less contrast. Clashing color combinations include:

  • Red and aqua/cyan
  • Green and fuchsia/magenta
  • Blue and yellow