Color Elicits Mood In Design

Given all of the elements that comprise any design project – composition, color, lighting, function, shape, texture – one of the most vexing tasks a designer must tackle is communicating the mood. Mood can be elusive, and it can be hard to evoke with precision and consistency, but there’s one tactic that can make the job easier: the deliberate, careful use of color.

The colors play a major role in setting the mood. In general, high-key schemes — those that are mainly in the color range from mid-tone hues to white — have a light, upbeat tone. Low-key schemes — those that employ the range of colors from mid-tone to black — send a more dramatic message.

In order to better understand the role of high and low key color in creating mood, it’s useful to examine several different examples that demonstrate the broad scope of emotion that can be evoked by the skillful use of color. Let’s look at several examples of moods and see how high and low key colors work in them.

High Key Scheme

Tranquil or Calming

You don’t need to be a professional designer to know that tranquil schemes often use a palette of blues. The difference between a pro and an amateur, though, is that experience with using and understanding colors makes all the difference.

Low chroma, grayed out or light, cool hues are the kind of low-key colors that most easily create a calming effect. Employing a palette that minimizes stark contrast between colors adds to the soothing and relaxing mood.

The potential drawback of an all cool, low-key color scheme is that your design can feel impersonal because it lacks warmth. The use of natural neutral tones can provide just enough contrast and make the tranquil mood evoked here more complex and comfortable.

While blue is the primary go-to color for calming spaces, don’t neglect other hues. Pale variations of green and lavender can work very well, too. Think in sea glass tones – pure hues that have been softened and worn, become comfortable and soothing.

It’s the nature of designers to push boundaries – see if they can bend, or even break rules and still achieve their goals. In this vein, it is possible to create a tranquil space with warmer colors – red, yellow, and orange – as long as the hues are very low chroma and very close in value to minimize contrast.

Nurturing and Caring

When the mood you’re creating is one of tenderness, your best bet is a high key palette of both warm and cool tones, light in value and with low contrast. The peaceful nature of the cool tones balanced by the protective and nurturing warm tones evokes a unique mood. The key is to soften to the contrast of complementary colors by lightening the value and intensity of your color choices. Blue and orange provide the perfect example of a complementary scheme that is nurturing once the hues are softened to pastel blue and coral.

Low Key Scheme

Engaging and Evocative

Rich, sumptuous textures, and deep, high chroma colors make the most of the sensual, stimulating properties of low-key colors. Sultry red, orange, yellow, and ochre awaken the senses and complementing those colors with luxurious elements or a dramatic setting strengthens the impression. Color psychology reveals that red-violet colors have a sensual effect, and broaden the palette that most designers use to create a space that awakens and stimulates.

Again, though, a designer can achieve an evocative effect with cool colors, especially if the canny designer selects a low key, deep palette and blends in touches of sumptuous textures and opulent accents.

Dynamic and Energetic

This contemporary mood can be achieved by a surprising, unexpected combination of vibrant, low-key colors in jewel tones combined with neutrals, creating a stark contrast that can leave one wondering what’s around the next corner. Create a scheme with a high degree of contrast between colors combined with unexpected neutrals creates interest and a sense of energy.

multi-color scheme

Whimsical and Playful

Playful moods are often created by using bright palettes with lots of vibrant, contrasting colors. Primary and secondary colors often play prominent roles, but you can also use multi-colored schemes or low key, high contrast accents in order to turn the expected on its head in a way that inspires a sense of carefree fun. Today, the whimsical mood isn’t just for children. Adults are attracted to high contrast schemes and playful patterns. This seems to be especially true of those who value creativity and innovation.

Although the color scheme is only one of the design elements used to create mood, it’s one that can create the framework around which other elements can be employed. By establishing the mood or tone of a design as one of the very first steps in the process, The mood you select guides many design decisions, beginning with the color palette.


  1. Thank you for this article, Kate. I find that creating the mood is what leads my colour choices for my designs, so this is super helpful! I believe you’re speaking more about value and intensity than hue. This opens up all sort of possibilities for me to create moods without being fixed on specific colours. Love it! Keep doing what you’re doing Kate. You’re having a wonderfully positive influence on many people. 🙂