Learn to Spot Clashing Colors Used in Graphic Design

Here's a Good Example of Opposites That Attract

Colored pencils in all shades forming a circle
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Contrasting colors or complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. Using colors that clash is not a bad combination in print design. They are high-contrast, high-visibility pairings that demand attention wherever they appear.

In color theory, contrasting colors are exactly opposite from each other on the color wheel. Designers apply the terms complementary and clashing more loosely than in the strict 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—are also considered opposites, not just a specific color pair.

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. Designs with too much clashing color too close together may appear to vibrate and overwhelm the viewer.

Contrast: One of the Principles of Design

Contrast is one of the basic principles of design because it tends to draw the eye to an important element of a web page or print design, creating a focus of attention. Contrast doesn't just mean contrasting colors; it exists in line widths, textures, color intensity, shapes, font sizes, and other elements, too.

Which Colors Clash?

Clashing colors and pairing
 Oleksii Arseniuk / Getty Images

Common color combinations that use two or three contrasting colors are complementary, split-complementary, triadic, and analogous color schemes.

  • Complementary: The two-color complementary combination usually uses two high-contrast or clashing colors that are opposite on the color wheel. Examples of complementary colors include red with green, blue with yellow, and orange with purple. Complementary colors are high contrast and high energy.
  • Split-complementary: The split-complementary color scheme uses two colors that are near neighbors and one that is opposite those two, such as red, orange, and light blue.
  • Triad: A triad scheme uses three colors equally spaced on the color wheel, such as purple, lime green, and orange.
  • Analogous: An analogous scheme uses three adjacent colors on the wheel. One of them is usually a primary color (red, yellow, or blue). This style has far less contrast than the others because the colors it uses are so close together.

Using any of these color schemes draws attention if you use them properly. You don't have to use them at full-color strength. Using a lighter or darker shade of a color or a less saturated version may work better, but the colors still add contrast.

The Importance of Color Contrast

Color is one of the essential elements of many designs. It keeps the viewer's interest, draws the eye, and makes elements stand out.

Steer clear of some color combinations where text is involved. Making anything hard to read on a print piece or web page is contrary to what you are trying to accomplish.