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Using the colour wheel for branding and packaging

Jay Daggar: Last Updated 24th May 2022
Posted In: Brand Positioning | Guides and Advice xx 31631

Selecting packaging colours

What is the colour wheel, and how can you use it to attract customers?

Graphic designers. Brand managers. Packaging designers. They all have one thing in common – an innate understanding of how using different colours can influence specific groups of consumers.

Colour psychology is one of the most effective design strategies. Using a specific shade or hue can be the difference between brand recognition and successful sales figures or being ignored by your target customers. And choosing the right combination of colours is just as important.

The colour wheel allows for selecting colours that complement each other well. Also referred to as the colour circle, it indicates the relationships between primary, secondary and tertiary colours. Colours on the opposite sides of the colour wheel are considered to work well together. Other methods, such as split complementary, analogous, or triadic colour selection, can achieve a range of different aesthetics.

But how can you use the colour wheel to create successful packaging?

Well, this guide covers:

  • Selecting complementary colours.
  • What analogous colours are.
  • Advanced techniques, including triad, tetradic or square.
  • Why you should consider tints, shades and tones.
  • And how this ties in with broader colour psychology.

Please use the contents to go straight to a specific section, or continue reading for full details.

Quick reference / contents


The importance of packaging colour

Before starting, it is essential to consider just how vital the use of colour can be in packaging design.

For example, studies suggest that colour drives 80% of brand recognition. 93% of consumers also make purchasing decisions based on the visual appearance of products (and, by extension, their packaging). And the majority of consumers make a purchasing decision within 20 seconds.

These statistics are why colour psychology assumes such importance.

A person with a colourful, painted face to represent packaging colour psychology
Packaging colour psychology can have a surprisingly large impact on the success of your products

Colour psychology is – in essence – the emotions, feelings or associations that specific colours elicit.

Common examples include using reds and yellows for brands targeting youthful markets. Green branding and packaging suggests to consumers that products are fresh and environmentally friendly. Even if subconsciously, the perception of blue is trustworthy, dependable, and intelligent (the reason it is common for consumer electronics brands).

In short, selecting a colour for your packaging shouldn’t be a decision you take lightly (or without adequate care and research).

Using combinations of colours

Knowing the type of message or emotion that colours evoke as part of packaging colour psychology is only the beginning.

To create a striking packaging design that truly reflects your brand purpose or the characteristics of your products, it is usually necessary to use more than a single colour.

The use of high contrast colours can make specific design elements more noticeable and prominent. Text, symbols, graphics, and other design elements can stand out when using contrasting colours carefully.

For example, a red and yellow colour scheme would provide sufficient contrast, whereas orange and yellow are too similar and result in elements lacking clarity and visual standout. Darker colours contrast best with lighter colours.

The colour wheel

The colour wheel

This is where the colour wheel comes in.

It allows you, using a number of different stratgies, to select colours that work well together.

And whilst brands typically do not want to use more than 2 or 3 colours on the packaging (or run the risk of the design becoming confusing, garish and visually unappealing), there are several ways to ensure a balanced, harmonious aesthetic to your printed packaging.

But how exactly  do you go about selecting appropriate hues?

This next section covers the different ways in which using the colour wheel allows you to define a suitable colour scheme when creating your packaging design.

Colour definitions

Primary, secondary and tertiary colours

Before detailing how the colour wheel can help when designing your packaging, it is important to define the structure of the colour wheel and the different colours within it.

Primary, secondary and tertiary colours

Primary colours

Primary colours are the three colours that create all other colours through mixing – red, yellow, and blue.

Whilst general colour theory uses these primary colours, it is vital to remember that the colours used when printing (to achieve the other shades) are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. These colours are commonly known as CMYK.

Any packaging designs must use CMYK colour and not RGB (Red, Green, Blue) used for screens, websites and online applications. You can see this and other packaging artwork mistakes to avoid in this guide.

Secondary colours

Secondary colours are those generated by mixing (in equal amounts) two of the primary colours.

As such, the three secondary colours are green, orange and purple/violet.

Tertiary colours

Tertiary colours make up the remaining colours within the colour wheel. However, their technical definition is colours created using a full saturation of one primary colour with a half-saturation of a second primary colour.

Another way to describe this is the mixing of equal amounts of a primary and a secondary colour together.

The tertiary colours on the colour wheel are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green.

Using the colour wheel

Selecting more than one colour for your packaging

Many people (wrongly) assume that arbitrarily selecting several attractive colours – which may be appealing in isolation – results in a pleasing design aesthetic. But the result is frequently the opposite.

In fact, it is important to select colours that work well together. Using the “colour wheel” is one of the easiest ways to choose these so-called “complementary colours”.

Complementary colours

Complementary colours

Generally speaking, colours on opposite sides of the wheel are commonly agreed to complement each other. So, for example, blue pairs well with orange, yellow with purple, and red with green.

Besides working well with each other, complementary colours also offer enough contrast in your packaging design and create an attractive, eye-catching appearance.

Split complementary colours

A similar colour wheel technique is known as selecting “split complementary” colours. This idea involves using the adjacent colours on the opposite side of the colour wheel.

For example, if blue is your primary colour, the complementary colour (on the colour wheel) would be orange. But the split complementary colours would be the red-orange and yellow-orange on either side of this.

This approach allows you to add three colours to your packaging whilst ensuring they all work well together (and create a hierarchy of shades).

Analogous colours

So whilst the colour circle allows you to select shades that are widely agreed to work well together, this is just the beginning of how you can use this tool.

A popular tactic is the use of analogous colours. Using analogous colours is an approach in which a design consists of three grouped colours (i.e. next to each other) on the colour wheel.

For example, blue, violet and turquoise (blue-green) are analogous colours.

This technique is common for packaging design as it allows for a clear hierarchy of dominant, supporting and accentuating colours to be used whilst maintaining a balanced visual appearance.

Advanced colour wheel techniques

Triad, tetradic or square colours

One of the triad, tetradic or square colour combinations, can be used for packaging designs looking to create a mixture of contrast and harmony.

Triad, tetradic and square colour selections

Triadic uses three evenly spaced colours on the colour wheel when selecting which shades to use. This technique is similar to the principle that the three primary colours – red, blue and yellow – are evenly spaced around the colour wheel.

Both tetradic and square combinations utilise four colours (pushing the number that a single packaging design can sensibly accommodate to the limit), with different spacing being the main difference.

Whilst arguably too much in some applications, these methods of colour selection can create some interesting results (especially where capturing attention is the main priority).

Other colour selection strategies

Tints, shades and tones

The use of tints, shades and tones is another technique for creating striking packaging design.

A tint is the addition of white to the colour in question or, in some cases, printing less ink. A shade involves using black to darken the colour, whilst a tone is where varying amounts of black and white (effectively forming a grey) makes the shade less bright and intense.

The use of tints, shades and tones can create a hierarchy of design elements, but with a considerably more subtle colour palette than the other colour wheel techniques (which can be too bright for some applications).

This idea can also minimise costs by limiting the number of inks required for a specific design.

Monochromatic colours

Tints, tones and shades can also allow for the final technique – monochromatic colours for packaging design. Monochromatic uses a single colour in its’ varying tints, tones and shades to create the design.

The result is a clean, well-coordinated appearance. However, another key benefit is that using a single ink can help keep packaging costs low (making this popular for lower-priced goods and more industrial type packaging).


Using the colour wheel for branding and packaging

While recognised as a hugely important tool for branding, the colour wheel is equally crucial for packaging design and print.

Selecting complementary colours can play a significant role in capturing consumer attention, ensuring your packaging is clear and easy to understand, and ultimately helping to win new customers.

When used in conjunction with colour theory and psychology, your choice of colours can have a surprisingly large impact.

If you need any assistance with the printed packaging, eCommerce boxes or transit cartons used at your business (and ensuring the colours you use are on point), then please contact a member of the GWP team.

Further reading

About the Author

Jay Daggar, GWP Packaging Sales Manager

Jay Daggar

Sales Manager | GWP Packaging

Jay joined GWP Packaging in mid-2008 before becoming Sales Manager in 2011, meaning he has worked for GWP for over 10 years. [Read full bio…]

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