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Background information: I'm working on an Android game for which I need to pick colours. But, I want the answer to this to be general to ANY kind of graphic design.

How do I choose between using a monochromatic, complementary, or triad colour scheme?

I'm going to assume this is not for print, so that cost is not a factor (1 vs. 2 vs. 3 vs. 4 colours). I know complementary schemes are easy to allow you to highlight information, but what about a triad? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each type of colour scheme?

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2 Answers 2

Honestly I think it depends entirely on the brand identity that already exists. Whether it be a logo or a full website if something exists you should base your decision off of that.

If nothing currently exists and you're working entirely from scratch I would start with a logo and use as few colors as possible and then expand from there using as many or as few colors as needed. It's really quite subjective to the artist and the amount of content you're working with. If the colors don't serve to differentiate between two things almost like bullets than I see no reason to use them.

Look at this site, you essentially have 2 main colors. Menus, Links, things to click on are Blue. Everything else is white. If they made a third main color they would've been using it just to use and that's never good. Form follows function.

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+1 for "Form follows function." Don't add colors because you think your design looks boring. Add colors because the content requires them. "Clown vomit" is a poor design aesthetic. –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 16 '11 at 13:19
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Take the points in Ryan's answer and Lauren's comments as good guides. There is a different and practical answer to your immediate question, though, and it relates to what complementary colors are and how our eyes react to one.

Two colors are optically/photographically complementary if when added together (as light) would give white. Red/Cyan, Green/Magenta, Blue/Yellow are strict complements. On a traditional color wheel the complementaries are slightly different, but not enough to make a practical difference here.

The big problem with complementary colors is that, placed side by side, they are very uncomfortable on the eyes. They "glare". Take a look:

Complementaries

These are extreme examples, to illustrate the point, but the principle applies anywhere you use complementary colors indiscriminately. Darker or less saturated versions of the colors will help (yellow on blue is slightly less uncomfortable because 100% blue appears darker to the eye), but the glare stems from the way that the eye reacts to color.

A strictly complementary scheme, therefore, is probably not a good idea for a game. It will be hard on the eyes, so users will feel uncomfortable quickly and won't want to play any more.

Monochromatic is possibly a bit dull for a game (not that it has to be -- it depends on the audience), so triadic, split complementary or a combination of triadic with occasional bits of complementary color as accents, would work well.

If you pop over to your nearest art supply store, you can find a copy of the Grumbacher color wheel, which comes with quite a decent little book explaining the schemes with good examples of their use in art. Remember that art (painting) is a very mature technology, refined over millenia. Proven color techniques from painting are fundamental to all of the visual arts, including theater, film, architecture and interior design, so it's good to know and understand them.

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Okay, thanks for addressing the game part. My question is: how do I know whether monochromatic or complimentary or triadic is right for the given situation? –  ashes999 Oct 16 '11 at 20:44
    
You don't. You DECIDE which is right, based on your audience, cultural associations of particular colors in that market, the mood (general tone, emotional context) of the item, what's currently fashionable and the overall style that will be appropriate for that message to that audience. Generally, you'll experiment and find two or three possibilities that you (and/or the client) will choose from. But do get that difference: there is no definitive answer; you DECIDE. That's part of what you get paid for. –  Alan Gilbertson Oct 16 '11 at 20:56
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