Archived copy for reference only


Graphic Design / Interactive Design / Fine & Applied Arts / Parkland College

Graphic Design Exercises
Design Principles: Color Theory

(Archived from 2019)


To explore color principles by mixing colors. To become familiar with 4-color process and Pantone spot colors. To become familiar with the Adobe color mixer.


The goal of color "theory" is to create pleasing color combinations. Experienced artists and designers usually make color decisions intuitively. However, beginners may wish to learn the "scientific" method of choosing colors as a starting point.

Designers in the USA will need to be familiar with both the CMYK and Pantone color models. Where CMYK (also known as "process" color) may be expensive, the Pantone system can reproduce some colors that CMYK can't. The general rule for choosing CMYK over Pantone will depend on whether (1) full-color scans are required or (2) the design requires more than three inks.

Although color is a property of light (which is difficult to control), designers can "mix" digital "paint" (pixels) fairly accurately. Unfortunately, digital color management is still in its infancy and calibration of colors from scanner to monitor to printer can not be guaranteed. Because our perception of color is relative, we can still study how colors relate to each on an uncalibrated monitor. Just don't expect to have those colors print accurately.


General instructions

  1. download starter files, examine downloaded files, read directions
  2. choose and apply colors per instructions
  3. have your instructor critique your best solutions on screen
  4. based on the critique above, make adjustments (if needed)
  5. submit color laser proofs with your name on it for grading
  6. file graded proofs in your Process Book for final review
  7. also save a PDF (smallest file size) and publish it as a link on your Process Page


  1. save colors you like to the swatches floating panel
  2. keep your swatches floating panel clean (in Illustrator/InDesign: window > swatches: flyout > select all unused, drag to trash)
  3. start with a clean swatches floating panel (in Photoshop: window > swatches: flyout > replace swatches with "CMYK")
  4. when mixing CMYK colors, use the HSB sliders whenever possible, then adjust the CMYK formula for "clean" colors
  5. when mixing Pantone colors, use the "solid coated" library
    (in Illustrator/InDesign: window > swatch libraries > color books > Pantone solid coated)
  6. useful Photoshop hot keys: opt+shift+DELETE (same as edit > fill: foreground color, keep transparency=yes); cmd+shift+DELETE (fills with background color instead); don't hold the shift key to fill entire layer/selection

For the color & moods exercise, review these six musical tracks (password required) or choose examples from your own collection.

Note: When working with InDesign, keep all linked images in the same folder as the original InDesign file to avoid broken links. When moving files, move the entire folder (never move just the InDesign file).

Last updated: 5/7/21