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Find Your Event's True Colors

Color theory 101 to elevate your events

As innovative visual aesthetics become increasingly important in the event world due to the fast-paced demand of new internet content, your event’s design needs to be top-notch. And while some of that inspiration can come from new, exciting creative ideas, there is value in going back to the basics of artistic design. 

Enter color theory.

“Color theory is the study of how colors work together and how they affect our emotions and perceptions,” states The Interactive Design Foundation. “It's like a toolbox for artists, designers, and creators to help them choose the right colors for their projects. Color theory enables you to pick colors that go well together and convey the right mood or message in your work.”

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Canva's Color Wheel tool allows designers to plug in colors and test out different palettes.

In his well-attended session at Catersource + The Special Event 2024, Applying the Principles of Color Theory to Elevate Your Events, industry pro Brian Green (By BrianGreen) broke down the basics of color theory, defining it simply: “Color theory is both the science and art of using color.”

The study of color has existed for centuries, since Sir Isaac Newton developed the color wheel (more on that in a bit). Since then, artists and designers of all kinds have played with the relationships of color, working to understand why certain colors have certain effects. In event design, understanding color theory is a must. Here are the basics of what you need to know.

The impact of color

There are many advantages to utilizing color theory in your event designs. In his session, Green gave three important reasons: it helps designers determine which colors look good together; it describes how color can affect our mood, development, and productivity daily; and it can influence the decisions people make.

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Periwinkle, gold, and blushy pinks create a soft, romantic look using a triadic color scheme. Photo courtesy Melani Lust Photography

This sphere of influence typically applies to marketing, but it is also commonly used to influence the tone of different physical spaces. “The color used directly impacts the look, feel, and the reactions of your attendees as they enter a space,” says an article from event company Encore Global.

From the moment your attendees enter your event space, the colors you use—and how you use them—can sway them and determine how they feel about the rest of the event. By understanding how to use color theory to communicate the message you want, you can ensure your event design will leave the impression you desire.

Get to know the basics

To truly understand how to use color to your advantage, let’s take an elemental look at what it is in the first place.

Color wheel

“When light shines on an object, some colors bounce off the object and others are absorbed by it. Our eyes only see the colors that are bounced off or reflected,” says color authority Pantone. When Newton discovered light shining through a prism in the same main seven colors each time, he created the color wheel, which visually demonstrates all the colors and how they are related.

These colors can be broken into categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Primary colors consist of red, yellow, and blue, and from these three, you can create any other color. They also can’t be created by mixing any other colors.

Secondary colors are created by mixing two primary colors (red + yellow = orange; yellow + blue = green, blue + red = purple). Tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary color with a secondary color (e.g., red + orange = red orange). 

The color wheel is a helpful visual tool you can use to understand the relationships between colors.

Color components

There are five ways to talk about the components that contribute to all the color variations.

  • Hue: The raw color as it is (green, purple, red). This is a color’s purest form.
  • Temperature: How warm or cool a color (or color palette) is. Reds, oranges, and yellows are warm; blues and purples are cool. Pinks, greens, and greys can be in between.
  • Shade: When black is added to a color to darken it.
  • Tint: When white is added to a color to lighten it.
  • Tone/intensity: The saturation of the color. The lower the saturation, the greyer the color.

Color schemes

A color scheme, or palette, is the purposeful combination of two or more colors. Here are the most common schemes.

  • Monochromatic: Using one color and all its variations. Green shared that this is a clean, elegant, and soothing scheme. It works well for floral palettes as well as corporate events. If a client wants to stick with one color—especially white—a monochromatic scheme can add dimension, especially on camera.
  • Complementary: Using a color and its direct opposite on the wheel (e.g., orange and blue). These are often found in corporate branding, because this strong palette is easily remembered. It’s widely used in children’s movies and sports teams, says Green. “Complementary colors always work well together.”
  • Analogous: This palette consists of colors found side by side, three in a row, on the color wheel (e.g., green, blue, purple). This scheme is often used in interior design, “which, if you’re in event design, we steal a lot of stuff from interior design,” says Green. It is also used often in fashion and works well for weddings.
  • Tetradic/rectangular: These colors form a rectangle on the wheel (e.g., orange, red, blue, green). These are favored by clients who want lots of eccentric color. This color scheme is tough for events, however; it’s typically only used by graphic artists in comic books and children’s toys. Green joked during his session, “Typically you’re praying no client’s walking in asking for this. And if they do, please @ [at] me, because I want to see what the final product looks like.”
  • Triadic: This color palette consists of colors that form a triangle on the wheel, equidistant from each other. “Think Superman,” says Green, referencing the red, yellow, and blue as a triadic scheme. This palette works very well for branding but is typically not used in events.
  • Split: This scheme forms a “Y” on the color wheel, with a color and colors close to its opposite, often a bold color among a couple of muted ones. This palette is used frequently in fashion and event design.

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A monochromatic color scheme with added touches of black to make the look pop. Event by By BrianGreen. Photo courtesy Charlton Inije Photography

It’s psychological

Colors carry symbolism, cultural associations, preferences, and perception. They show up in our language, and they communicate meaning in rituals and traditions, especially ceremonies. The study of color shows that each color has a different effect on people’s moods and feelings. Just remember, color psychology can vary depending on cultural associations. 

“Many people don’t realize that the meaning of colors varies in different countries or within different cultures,” says Green. “Different colors have different meanings in different parts of the world.” He advises doing your research, because this can mean the difference between colors that connect to your clients and colors that offend their culture.

Another way to say it: color is not universal. Green pointed out that in Western design, blue is associated with trustworthiness, masculinity, and corporate things. However, in Eastern design, this same color indicates femininity and wealth.

Another example: in Western and Middle Eastern culture, mourning is represented by black. However, in Eastern culture, this same somber emotion is represented by white.

And besides leveling up your design skills, understanding color theory makes you a more valuable planner.

“Understanding your client, understanding what the color is going to do for that event already makes you have the ability to charge more,” notes Green, “because now I can walk you through why the palette you thought you needed isn’t necessarily the right palette to convey the message that you want to convey.” Color theory doesn’t just help you make better design choices; it helps you sell your events better, too.

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Above information courtesy of Halo Media Group

Start painting

Now that you know the basics of color theory, how can you apply them to your events?

For Green it starts with the client and their vision for the event and what it’s about. Ask them questions that help you get the feel of their personality and the event’s vibe:

  • What are your favorite colors?
  • What mood, feeling, and emotions do you want to invoke for the event?
  • What is the goal of the event?
  • Are there any colors you dislike?
  • If you were to walk the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards, what color would you wear?

These are questions Green asks to get an idea of what emotions and messages the client wants to communicate. “I use those questions to determine what the client's color scheme might be with them so that we have a starting point to create the perfect palette. Ultimately it is driven by their likes and themes for the event.”

Next, use your knowledge of color theory to find what colors will best represent your client and the event.

“From there I work on applying the principles of color theory on what works best with what complementary colors, what tones, hues, shades, and tints may work, and whether we are playing into a traditional color scheme to truly tell the story pleasingly and cohesively to the eye,” says Green. “Then I create a mood board with those colors and then we shift into adding textures, to bring it to life.”

Canva has a helpful color wheel tool that allows you to play with various schemes across the color wheel.

When it comes to the bringing-it-to-life part, think about what your guests’ eyes will be drawn to first. 

“Worry less about floors, ceilings, and walls in a venue,” advises Green. “Floors get covered approximately 80% by tables, chairs, and a huge dance floor and stage. Walls and ceilings can be manipulated by lighting or drapery. When guests enter the space, they will not see the crazy carpet pattern; they will see the amazing design you thoughtfully curated.”

Now that you are familiar with the fundamentals of color theory, you can experiment, bringing more mindfulness into your designs and elevating the outcomes of your events. After all, event planning isn’t just a job; it’s an art in its truest form.

“Have the most fun! Color theory is so incredible,” says Green. “Through the use of color, you can change moods, encourage an audience to act in a specific way, you can create intimate spaces or conversely create spaces that feel expansive—all through color theory.”  


Color Trends

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For the Crazy Rich Asians premiere party, Kristin Banta Events, Inc. used a color palette of green, gold, and pink. In Eastern color theory, these colors represent (respectively) prosperity, wealth, and marriage, all themes in the movie. Photo courtesy Kristin Banta Events, Inc.

When we think of trending color schemes, most of us immediately think of Pantone’s Color of the Year. This year’s color, Peach Fuzz, has inspired many warm, soft peachy palettes (head to the Spring Issue of Catersource magazine for some ideas featuring this color).

But many designers fight the urge to roll their eyes when clients request the Color of the Year. There are other colors that cycle through event spaces and become trendy. In her session Kristin Banta's Design To Impact In 2024 at Catersource + The Special Event 2024, Kristin Banta highlighted chartreuse and browns gaining popularity.

Here are the color trends predicted for 2024:

  1. Luxurious neutrals
  2. Bright bubblegum
  3. Digital noir
  4. Sharp citrus
  5. Oceanic color waves
  6. Industrial after-dark
  7. Pearlescence
  8. Regal hues
  9. Tonal apricot 

Above information courtesy of Vistaprint

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