The Ultimate Guide To Monochromatic Colors In Graphic Design

The Ultimate Guide To Monochromatic Colors In Graphic Design

8 min read
“One can speak poetry just by arranging colors well.”
– Vincent Van Gogh

The burst of joy, the tone of seriousness, or a splash of personality, color is absolutely definitive in any design. The colors you pick for a design play a massive role in the final outcome. Color influences communication. If you know a thing or two about color psychology, you'll be familiar with how different colors are associated with particular meanings, and therefore the human brain associates them with particular feelings and ideas. Our color choices in art and design are a vital component in the process and end result.

Experimenting with a stack of different color techniques helps you become a more well-rounded artist and able to offer your clients a diverse range of options.

The more variety of skills and techniques you have under your belt, the deeper you’re able to go with your creation. So in case you haven’t experimented with a monochromatic color scheme, or you wish to take what you know about it further, keep reading because in this article we’re going to explore how you can get the most out of monochrome.

What Are Monochromatic Colors?

The Tate art museum defines monochrome as follows:

"Monochrome means one color, so in relation to art, a monochrome artwork is one that includes only one color."

That totally makes sense, especially when you break the meaning of the word down from its Greek roots:

  • Mono= “one”
  • Chrome= “color”

However, it’s not as simple as “one color.” Designers will understand just how many varieties there are of a single color. Monochrome colors are all the varieties of a single hue - the tints, shades, and tones. A monochromatic color scheme will range between lighter and darker versions of the base color or hue. So before continuing, let’s catch up on some color theory.

monochromatic colors red
Image Source: Wikimedia
Quick Catch Up On Color Theory

In case you need a refresher, or you’re totally new to this stuff, let’s establish some basics:

Hue - basically means “color.” If you dive into the definition, you’ll find all kinds of technical color theory information like how the hue is the dominant wavelength in a color. Painters understand “hue” as the purest form of a pigment when dealing with paint color, so try and think of it like that - a pure color before it’s altered by shade, tint, and tone.

Tint - Makes a color lighter. Tints are created by adding white to a color.

Shade - Makes a color darker by adding black.

Tone - Refers to a color’s vibrance. They are changed by adding grey. A color with more grey will be a duller tone than the original color, while one with less grey will be a more saturated version of that color.

monochromatic color wheel
Image Source: Public Domain Pictures

On the color wheel, each segment represents the color family of a single hue. There are subtle differences between each variation of the hue, all of which would make up a monochromatic color palette.

When using this scheme for design, each of your elements will be a range of tints, shades, and tones based on one selected base color. Because there are variations for each hue, you are free to get creative and express in any way you choose with a monochrome scheme from bright and bold to cool and muted.

Tips And Ideas For Using A Monochromatic Color Scheme

Choosing Your Base Color

So you’ve decided to go with a monochromatic color palette for your design. But oh my, which hue do you use for the base color?

Remember that the rest of your color palette is going to be a variation of the base color, so it’s important that the hue you decide on is on-brand, on-fleek, or simply communicates the right message (remember what we said about color psychology?).

It depends on your communication objectives and the intended audience. If you’re simply dabbling in a creative project for yourself or your personal brand, you could go straight for your favorite color and play with the various shades and tones of that.

If you’re creating a graphic design or illustration for a brand, you might want to make the base color the same as that of the brand’s C.I. If you want to make a statement, choosing a memorable color such as something neon could work to your advantage, if you use it right.

Creating Your Color Palette

Monochromatic schemes usually consist of 3 to 7 variations in your one-color palette, made up of darker shades and lighter tints of the original color.

It’s always good to start any design project by experimenting. Digital graphic design tools such as Photoshop or Vectornator make it really easy to experiment and create a palette, simplifying the design process.

Play around with creating variations of your base color and narrow it down to the few you feel work best together. You might decide to combine a few monochrome variations with an extra color, perhaps even a complementary color, to add an extra layer of intrigue to your design.

If you’re new to design and need to learn about how to create a digital color palette with your design software, you can find plenty of helpful videos on YouTube such as the one below.

Brand Identity

Monochromatic design is perfect for creating visual cohesion. There are many design elements that go into creating a visual identity, but color will play a major role in defining the brand.

When choosing the color, you’ll start where anything in marketing starts - knowing your audience.  You’ve got to choose a color that will resonate with the intended audience as well as communicate what the brand stands for.

Applying a monochrome technique to brand identity is a great way to create unity and will make designing anything for the brand that much easier going forward as all the colors has already been chosen.

Create Vibrant, Bold Designs

You can have fun with bold colors such as neon or red in a monochromatic scheme.

The benefit of incorporating lighter tints and darker shades of a striking, bold color into a design is that you can make a statement without the design being overwhelming or too bright. The variety of shades and tints helps to balance out bolder colors, making your bright base hue function as an accent color.

Create Calming, Muted Designs

Neutral tones look oh-so chic together in a monochrome design. This type of scheme is fantastic for lifestyle brands and looks classy on social media.

A neutral color palette keeps a design simple, and brings a sense of peace and connection to nature. Various shades of beige and brown are gentle and calming, especially when combined with white. Darker shades of neutral can also be used to create a warm ambiance.

Make Your Illustration Irresistible

Monochromatic images are beautiful. This illustration takes just one color found in a sunset and enlivens it with ambiance by basing an entire illustration on a purple monochrome palette.

Sibi has used a range of tones in purple to bring depth to the artwork by creating the illusion of shadow and silhouette. Contrasted by lighter shades of purple, the monochrome image is perfectly dynamic by just using one color.

Play With Grayscale

There are tons of fun and sophisticated ways to incorporate grayscale into designs. You might refer to this as an achromatic color scheme, meaning that it is without color and purely made up of shades and tones. One technique you could try is combining an achromatic theme with a pop of color for a strong visual statement.

Ramius Aquiler plays with monochrome in grayscale by combining a pop of yellow. Bright and expressive colors contrasted against grey work beautifully together.

Grayscale can be cool, classy, and simple, and there are more variations than you’d think. You could add an undertone of beige, yellow or red to create variations of warmer grays or diversify your color options with a sharp contrast between black and white.

Going grayscale can be a good option for print projects, as it is much more affordable to print.

Produce Packaging That Pops

Monochrome color schemes make for some really inspiring packaging designs. This technique works particularly well when packaging products that come in a set. Each item can be differentiated by having its own variation from the color palette as seen below.

Going with a monochrome look in grayscale would be a suitable packaging solution for affordable printing.

Use It In UI

You can use color as an innovative communication technique in UI design. Use variations of a color to show relationships or to differentiate segments on an interface. In the example seen below, variations of orange are used to communicate degrees of temperature. You can use color to cleverly communicate all kinds of things to make for an easy and pleasant user experience.

Use It For Simplicity

A monochrome palette is the perfect solution for honing the beauty of simplicity. It makes the design process itself simpler, as you don’t need to combine different colors, and it communicates simplicity to the eye. Even a bright and vibrant monochrome scheme is simple for the fact that there is no stark variation in color, offering a sense of unity that’s inherently uncomplicated and effortless.

Create Dynamic Photographs

There is so much fun to be had with monochromatic color photography, and overlays.

A monochromatic image is bound to stand out as an editorial design, on a poster, or on social media. You can combine a monochrome color scheme with photography by intentionally photographing a monochromatic scene, or in the editing phase by applying a tinted overlay on top of a photograph.

monochromatic colors used in dynamic photographs
Image Source: FOODISM360 | Image Source: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos | Image Source: Adam Gonzales

Try Texture

By playing with texture, or the illusion of texture, you can create an entire design in just one color, without any variations, and still have something totally dynamic. Think embossing. Think patterns. Think 3D. There are plenty of ways to make an image interesting just by applying texture to minimal color.

monochromatic color
Image Source: Jack B

Make Infographics Interesting

Infographic design has evolved exponentially in the last few years. Designers are getting really creative and making some gorgeous infographic designs.

There are even graphic design software tools that help non-designers easily create infographics too because they have become such a valuable piece of content. As a graphic designer, it will be worth your while to be able to produce captivating infographics. But even if you're not a trained designer, you too might need to create one at some stage in your job or studies.

Applying a monochromatic color scheme can make for a creative and engaging infographic that strikes the perfect balance between being interesting enough to draw the eye in whilst not distracting from the information itself.

The infographic below uses shades of blue to create variation and intrigue in its design.

Wrap Up

Whether it’s baby pink for a bubblegum brand, greyscale with blue accent color, or a range of dark shades in green to create a moody illustration, there are many ways to go with monochrome.

Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas for different techniques and styles so that you can try something new with your designs. If you’re just getting started or you’re a seasoned graphic designer looking for something fresh, be sure to try out our free vector design software.

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