Color Conversation 

A color theory dinner party

by Brandy Agerbeck, author of The Idea Shapers and chartreuse's biggest fan

Excerpted from
The Idea Shapers: The power of putting your thinking into your own hands
pages 133-142

Copyright © 2016 Brandy Agerbeck, All rights reserved. 

There is so much to learn about The Spectrum and how our eyes and brain perceive colors and how we organize and make sense of them. These pages are meant to be one introductory model to help orient you in your choices as you begin.

In this book, we will walk through the traditional Red/Yellow/Blue (RYB) color wheel. As you research color, you’ll see that there are different models for thinking about color, depending on how the colors are created. A more modern model, of four-color process printing, is Cyan/Magenta/Yellow (CMY or CMYK, where K stands for the “key” color of black). Think of the printing process — where overlapping the three colors of colored ink on white paper creates different hues and shades. Another, newer model is Red/Green/Blue (RGB) — think of the colors on your computer screen — the three overlapping colors create white light.

Again, we have many models for organizing and understanding color. The color wheel used in these pages is the one you were likely taught in grade school.

Primary Colors

To understand the relationships between colors, we will picture the color wheel as a dinner party of six guests around a round table. The first guests to arrive are Red, Yellow and Blue. These are the primary colors. While not strictly true, we are taught that you can mix any color from these three pure colors.

Red and blue are the most popular corporate logo colors. If you add a sunny yellow to those two it can feel childish, like plastic toys or bright terry cloth rompers for toddlers. Piet Mondrian’s iconic, geometric paintings use black, white and primary colors.

Secondary Colors

Next, three more guests arrive: Orange, Green and Purple. These are the secondary colors, and these three hues are created by mixing two of your three primary colors together. For instance, red plus yellow makes orange.

These secondary hues gained popularity as logo colors for technology companies beginning in the 1990’s. This combination of three is also popular for Halloween colors with orange pumpkins, green witch’s skin and purple monsters.

Tertiary Colors

If you doubled the guest count at your dinner, and sat a person in between each of the first six people, you would get the tertiary colors: fuchsia, red-orange, yellow-orange, chartreuse, turquoise, and indigo blue.

Often these more blended colors are perceived as more sophisticated than the basic brights contained in the smallest box of crayons. For instance, you’re more likely to see a kid’s t-shirt in bright orange and a woman’s cashmere cardigan in a yellow-orange “persimmon” or “pumpkin.”

Warm + Cool Colors

Let’s imagine one side of the dining area has a drafty window, with a blustery winter outside. Green, Blue and Purple sit on this side of the table — they are the cool colors. Across the room is a crackling fireplace. Red, Orange and Yellow are the warm colors, so they sit here.

You may have your own personal association of a toasty, purple wool sweater, or the color of a frosty orange popsicle. Still, we have strong psychological ties to the temperatures. Red may be hot and passionate. A steely blue may feel cool to us. A periwinkle may remind us of dusk as a chill sets in after the warm, orange orb of the sunsets.

What is the temperature of your idea? What color would work to convey that feeling?

In my graphic facilitation work, I tend to use warm colors for human-centered topics. Like a beating heart or blushing skin. I use cool colors when my clients discuss systems or machines. The green of computer circuitry or the cold blue of metal.

I have a very strong association with color. In my three-day class, The Lab, we often map an hour of audio about The Chicago Fire. I want to challenge myself to map it in an icy blue. I simply cannot. The pull to use warm colors to represent fire is too primal in me.

Analogous Colors

Two guests sitting next to each other can easily make conversation. Colors neighboring each other along the color wheel are called analogous. These neighbors “go together,” creating Flow and harmony.

Analogous color schemes are the perfect choice for representing analogous ideas. If two chunks are distinctly different from each other but closely related or aligned, picking two neighboring colors visually supports the relationship.

Creating Flow throughout a chart is as natural as looking at a rainbow or the spectrum cast by a prism. Let’s say you start a drawing using bright green. As you progress in your drawing, you see the need to introduce a new color for the next step in your process. You choose dark green, which blends with the bright green, but is still distinctly different. For the next step, you choose to add turquoise, continuing the flow of color between one section and the next.

Two analogous colors also work well when you are making a list and want to distinguish one item from the next. Simply alternating two colors, for example making the first item dark green and the next item dark blue, will help each item stand out.

Complementary Colors

Next, imagine an ostentatious flower arrangement sits in the middle of the table. Two dinner guests sit opposite the table from each other. They shout to hear one another, bobbing and weaving around that giant centerpiece. These colors are complementary. In this case, complementary does not mean they spend the evening complimenting each other. Complementary means that when blended they will cancel each other out. Mix them as paints and they create black, overlap them as light and they create white.

Think of the loudness and tension created by your Purple and Yellow guests trying to talk. Use colors opposite each other on the color wheel when you want a louder visual dynamic, or to illustrate contrasting ideas. Using small accents of a complementary color on an analogous color scheme is a terrific way to guide the eye to specific details.

Many sports teams are branded in complementary colors. The high-contrast colors within a uniform or logo make these athletes look powerful, active, strong. Conversely, a nurse’s scrubs are calmer colors that are soothing. A football player in hospital green wouldn’t look to have the vitality to take the field. An anesthesiologist decked out in bright orange and blue would likely not inspire calm in you as a patient going into surgery. Unless you were a Chicago Bears fan.


When you look at color, you can think of this dinner party and how the colors relate to each other. Even if you haven’t thought about color theory explicitly, you have already been responding to color in these ways subconsciously. Now you can actively choose hues and color groupings that create relationships in different ways.

End of Excerpt

Where to learn more about The Spectrum:

The Spectrum is one of 24 visual thinking techniques in Brandy's 2016 book, The Idea Shapers

The fourth module of The Agerbeck Method, the core online visual thinking course, focuses on color.

Want to dive deep and learn loads about color? Register for Spectrum Savvy.

Who do you know looking for a color wheel refresher?
You can send them Color Conversation with these buttons:

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