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How to Read Colors: 16 Terms You Need To Know

How to Read Colors: 16 Terms You Need To Know

Yes, there’s a lingo that is understood among designers that may sound foreign to an outsider: don’t be an outsider. Catch up on the language of your talent and be on the same page as them.

Take some time to learn the commonly used terms.

1. Saturated:
When something is unsaturated, it contains no color. Saturation is the amount of hue exposure within an image. Highly saturated images contain very bold colors which may be inaccurate in most images without solid colors.

Biondo Art - saturates vs unsaturated color

2. RGB:
rgbNow, I know someone with glasses and a bowtie that might think this means “real good book”, but it doesn’t. It means “Red Green Blue” and it’s referred to images that will be used for digital screen applications only, meaning displays or monitors. You shouldn’t use RGB colors for printing purposes because it contains a full spectrum of colors including fluorescents that cannot be printed with standard inks. RGB uses an additive color system, which adds all colors to create white, and is the reverse for CMYK: all colors are added to create Black.

3. CMYK:
This is the standard acronym for Cyan – Magenta – Yellow – Black. CMYK uses a subtractive color system that creates Black when all colors are added. This is most commonly used for printing. Most printers will use a Four-Color Process for professional printing. Some printers will also use Light Cyan and Light Magenta to print.


4. Hexadecimal:
There’s a sign shop owner in Sarasota, FL, with a bowtie that should know this, but is still clueless. A Hexadecimal is the six-digit alphanumeric code that represents an exact color. It’s used in web development, digital and print design. Adobe’s Photoshop & Illustrator color picker tool displays a list of codes for colors. Hexadecimal is used on an everyday basis with a designer weather they know it or not. It usually looks like this, represented in the red rectangle below:


“Who really cares about all of that? Just make the damn thing blue!” I’ve heard those phrases from customers / clients, and managers / bosses alike. The real problem is not being educated on the millions of possibilities when printing or matching a color from a logo. These numbers are sensitive and accurate information that will determine if you get the exact light blue in your logo, or something close.

This gives an alphanumerical system that represents the wide ranged color spectrum based in RGB, which is also limited for CMYK. If you try to select a color out of CMYK range, it will revert back to the closest color. This is because the hex system represents fluorescent colors, which can’t normally be printed in CMYK. But those colors in RBG are still available for screens, which can display highly saturated colors.

5. Pantone (PMS):
A company that developed a universal color matching system that created a color guide that displays their own specific code issued with each color to use for printing purposes. PMS stands for Pantone Matching System assigning a code to identify exact shades of color.

Pantone Color System Color Matching Book | Biondo Art

6. Monochrome:
A monochromatic color scheme means that the composition is built arounds the base of one color that only has different tones ranging from light to dark.


Monochromatic Color | Adobe Color | Biondo Art
Monochromatic Color | Adobe Color


7. Analogous:
A color scheme which is based from neighboring colors on the color wheel.


Analogous Color | Adobe Color | Biondo Art
Analogous Color | Adobe Color


8. Complementary:
Colors that create the most tension are located opposite of each other on the color wheel. For example, Yellow’s compliment is Violet, Red’s compliment is Green, and Orange’s compliment is Blue.


Complimentary Color | Adobe Color | Biondo Art
Complimentary Color | Adobe Color


9. Triadic:
Three evenly spaced colors on the color wheel. Orange, Violet, and Green are evenly spaced on the color wheel to be triadic colors.

Triadic Color | Adobe Color | Biondo Art
Triadic Color | Adobe Color

10. Warm Colors:
Colors described as being warm are colors found naturally in heat and warmth. These colors are known to range from Yellows, Oranges, and Reds on the color wheel, including browns and tans.

Warm Colors | Biondo Art
Warm Colors

11. Cool Colors:
Colors described as cool. cool colors are often said to be the hues from blue green through blue violet, most grays included.

Cool Colors | Biondo Art
Cool Colors

12. Linear Gradient:
A gradient is a feathered blend of colors. A linear gradient will always be directional, and can be angled in any direction. Which, can be effective with a simple shade and highlight.

The example below features a gradient set from the left to right, mirrored at the middle, then reversed from right to left.

Dirty Logan Association Logo | Biondo Art
Dirty Logan Association Logo | Biondo Art

13. Radial Gradient:
On the other hand, a radial gradient still obtains the same qualities as any other gradient, but they are normally spherical or oblong in shape. This can be used to effectively create a glow, or a vignette over images.

Take a look at the background of the Instagram icon. Only a partial capture of the radial gradient is shown, however it is used effectively.

Instagram Logo | Radial Gradient | Biondo Art
Instagram Logo | Radial Gradient in Background

14. Raster Images:
You don’t want to look like a fool in a professional environment if the term raster is mentioned. Raster images are generated using pixels within height and width constrictions based on resolution determined by pixels per inch.

Files and images in raster form are identified with common extensions such as jpg, png, tiff, gif, and bmp. These filetypes are useful for photography, compressing imagery, or the use of any digital media.

The image below shows a raster image in a normal view on the left compared to a zoomed in image on the right to show pixel detail.

Raster Example | Biondo Art

15. Vector Images:
Vector images are usually designed with points, curves, and shapes to illustrate scalable images to be produced in physical methods, such as printing, embroidery, or large scale advertisements. There is no resolution in vector images unless it’s exported to a format which is raster.

Vector Example | Biondo Art

16. Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary:
Identifies order in color schemes. The primary color is has the highest percentage of color within a design, or color used within the largest element of a design. Secondary colors are usually accents or compliments of the primary color to support the image or design. A Tertiary color is the third and least used color but can be very important to the elements of a design. Usually the color White or a very light color is used within logo designs and not usually considered within the rank of these three colors within a color scheme.

Check out these successful logos with their primary, secondary, and tertiary colors identified.

Primary Secondary Tertiary | Biondo Art


You as a customer or a designer should be educated on the importance of color matching. It creates harmony and continuity with projects.

If I didn’t cover something that you think is important to discuss, then please write it in the comments below! Thank you so much for reading! I hope this article helps with explaining a few things for designers and team members that work with designers.

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