How to choose colors

Table of Contents

In a few steps to a nice color palette

As color designers, we work with relations and variances, nuances and estimates, sensitivity and emotion. Sought are atmosphere and mood, style and class. Since we all understand anything else by these terms, we must also determine and visualize these terms individually and in detail.

Therefore, to design a color scheme isn't one of the exact sciences with only one correct solution to an issue, even so the existence of a color theory may this suggest. For a given situation, many design solutions of the color design are possible. But among all the possibilities there is (quite) exactly the right one for our needs. That's what we want to detect!

In the following we describe a procedure to develop and implement a color palette ore color scheme which is usable in most tasks. In a first step we will determine the conditions of the room and the mood therein:

Capture situation and space

Daylight and lighting

Without light there is no color. As a basic condition for color, light and lighting are the basic conditions in color planning either. Working with color includes working with light.

Daylight is constantly changing, and so do the colors. The daylight conditions in a room influence the effect of the colors and determine what colors are suitable.

Thus, it's necessary to observe the daylight situation in the given room and characterize it. The table below may be helpful for this task:

Observe and classify the daylight in a room

  3 2 1 0 1 2 3  
large windows               small windows
sunny               umbrageous
warm               composed
southern               Northern
occidental               oriental
green environment               grey environment
brown environment               blue environment
  • The markings are mostly located in the left pane: bright and warm atmosphere.
  • The markings are mostly located in the right pane: shady and cool atmosphere.
  • The arrangement of the markings is balanced or rather in the center: neutral atmosphere.

Depending on the colors, the existing ambiance can now be intensified, on the other hand it's possible to attenuate it. With a neutral colored scheme the given mood is hardly affected. In the matrix below we can specify in which color range we should develop our color scheme and deduce whether the color palette should include more warm, cool or neutral colors:

Figure out the desired indoor climate

Given mood of the room      
bright, warm neutral umbrageous, cool  
Desired mood of the room     Color temperature to choose
more warm warm neutral warm
warm neutral cool neutral
neutral cool more cool cool

Example: The given mood in the room is rather shady and cool. Since the room should serve as a working room, we want a more neutral atmosphere there. So we will create a palette of warm color shades.

Architectural style and interior work of the room

Not only the walls and ceiling have to be included in the color planning, but the entire room with all the interior work. The interior work signifies the style and the function of a room and also affects its ambiance.

Therefore, we are about to identify the formal and functional conditions of the room to gain further clues for the development of the color scheme:

Shape and dimensions of the room

  3 2 1 0 1 2 3  
high               low
wide               small
square               contorted
enclosed               opening up

Style of the interior work

  3 2 1 0 1 2 3  
modern               classical
petty bourgeois               bourgeois
square               contorted
handy               splendid

Use and type of the room

  3 2 1 0 1 2 3  
private               societal
calm               vivid
pragmatic               romantic
arranged               arbitrary

We now collect pictures and samples fitting and well illustrating the selected attributes. We also consider the insights we have gained from observing the lighting situation. In our collection we include samples of the materials and colors that already exist in the room and remain unchanged.

Develop a color palette

Distinguish the mood in the room

After we watched the lighting situation and captured the kind of the room, we now are ready to develop a matching color scheme. First, we will try to draw a more accurate picture of the desired ambiance. To do so, some properties, characterizations or descriptions of atmosphere are compared with each other in the table below:

Fathom the aspired ambiance

  3 2 1 0 1 2 3  
dynamic               restrained
gentle               neutral
animating               relaxing
intimate               generally
courteous               rigorous
cheery               austere
centered               loosing
calming               vivifying
rough               tender
fair               deep
loud               extenuated
soft               strict
mellow               composed
airy               earthy
  • The markings are mostly located in the left pane: animating atmosphere.
  • The markings are mostly located in the right pane: calming atmosphere.
  • The arrangement of the markings is balanced or rather in the center: neutral atmosphere.

In a second step we now examine our pictures and samples, discard unsuitable material and if necessary complement our collection with designs that even better fit to the desired ambiance.

Distinguish the style of the room

Since we know more about the desired ambiance, we may go ahead with the styling and refining of the color palette. To gain more clarity about the aspired style, we in turn will create a profile using the next table:

Fathom the aspired style

  3 2 1 0 1 2 3  
trendy               timeless
luxurious               modest
playful               factual
opulent               soberly
elemental               artificial
modern               conservative
cautious               striking
cosy               distinguished
familiar               exotic
clear cut               complex
enhancing               framing
functional               multi-functional

Taking into account the style profile we review our collection of samples. We sort out the colors and illustrations which less match the aspired style. After this clarification and simplification we should already have a color palette which shows the basic color mood and ambiance.

Mood-board and verification on the spot

We now arrange the distilled color samples according to the given elements and details of the room. Because with the elaboration of the mood-board our color scheme should become substantiated and made tangible, the proportions and material qualities of the samples should comply with the later reality.

While working on the mood-board we also try to jump mentally from the color swatch to its application in the space. Finally we will provide to each set color tone some tolerable brighter and darker nuances.

Once the mood-board has reached a satisfying level, the swatches should be positioned in the room to observe and check their effect. Right on the spot and using the provided shades of brightness we also do the fine-tuning of the color tones.



Bettina Rodeck, Gerhard Meerwein, Frank H. Mahnke: Farbe - Kommunikation im Raum. Basel, Birkhäuser, 2007. ISBN 978-3764375959

David Oliver: Paint and Paper. Conran Octopus, 2007. ISBN 978-1840914030

Author: Paul Zoller,


Emacs 28.2 (Org mode 9.5.5)