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Understanding Design Basics:

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

“I never met a color I didn’t like” my friend said. And I agreed. He understood that every color has its place, if chosen relative to the context in which it will be used. Einstein’s theory of relativity isn’t necessary to successfully select colors for our environments. Yet choosing color is an art and a science. To ease the conundrum of choosing a color for your design, you can increase your knowledge of color’s relationship to light, its basic components and other factors, color psychology for example.  

Our perception of color is as different as our DNA. Perhaps this explains why my dear spouse will try to match a shirt and tie that shouldn’t even be in the same closet together.  Light waves send messages to the eye that the brain interprets as color.  As light amount, source and quality varies, it affects our color perception.  Yellow light makes the color purple appear brown.  Natural light reflected from a red wall casts a pink glow. 

When choosing color, designers manipulate hue, value and intensity, the three basic components of color.  Most people can identify a color’s hue as red, blue, etc.  Elderly eyes have more difficulty distinguishing subtle shifts in hue; increasing value contrast helps.  Value is a color’s range from light to dark, or ‘pastels’ to ‘shades’.  Intensity defines the brightness of a color.  Scarlet red is considered intense or saturated, as opposed to de-intensified muddy-brown.  

A color “wheel” is a spectrum of many colors shaped as a wheel. It contains color harmonies, like “monochromatic,” “analogous” and “complementary”, the basis for many color schemes. The quiet simplicity of a monochromatic scheme implies a single hue, usually incorporating several values and intensities for variety.  Analogous hues are adjacent to one another, i.e. blue, blue-green and green.  While more colorful than a monochromatic scheme, the color temperature tends toward either warm or cool.  A cool scheme may work well in a library to limit distraction and enhance concentration, but a dash of a warm color will keep us awake.  This combination could result in a complementary color scheme.

Complementary hues are temperature opposites on the color wheel and derive from “after-images”.  After-images are seen when the eye is over-stimulated by one color.  Practically applied in hospital operating rooms, the color green allows the surgeon’s eye to rest and re-focus after over-stimulation by the color red. 

Who can ignore white, the all-time neutral default, in an article about color?  Too much white creates glare (as in snow-blindness…) that can accelerate eye deterioration.  Consider resolving the problem if your eyes squint at the computer.

Now you know there is more to color ‘than meets the eye’.  Consider basics first, and then incorporate other factors.  Dorothy and Toto reached Oz by following the advice “It’s best to begin at the beginning.” 

UDB-ColorA contemporary color wheel..



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