How to Use Tints and Shades in Your Designs

You’re nearing the finish lines of your design project, but one last step has you stumped: choosing a color scheme.

Let me guess: when it comes to designing (anything), you struggle choosing the right colors?

You’ve organized the layout, nailed down the content, and even picked the fonts. But color can be so confusing… Should you go with basic black and white, something bright, or monochrome? A mix of everything?

Getting Started: A Quick Hack to Choosing the Right Colors

Choosing the right colors begins with just choosing two colors:

  1. A neutral color; and,
  2. An accent.

For our purposes, let’s define neutral as black, white, gray, or something in the beige/brown family. The accent can be anything you please, from aquamarine to zucchini green.

From those two choices, you can create an endless color palette, from three options to 30. How? By adding tints and shades.

So, what are tints and shades?

Tints and shades are art terminology for the lighter and darker variations of a single color. They’re created by adding white (for tints) or black (for shades) to a base color.

Using them as part of a color palette has a number of advantages. For one, the color selection process is simplified. You have fewer colors to choose, and don’t have to worry about your design unintentionally looking like a rainbow splattered all over it. Another benefit of tints and shades is that they automatically give your palette a polished, cohesive look since they’re formed from the same base color.

1-tints-shades

As an example of this technique, the following branding work from Whitney Blake uses a palette of blues and grays (notice the light and dark variations of each, which provide contrast) to give her subdued color scheme more versatility.

How to Create Tints and Shades

It can be difficult to choose tints and shades for a color palette by just eyeballing it. Some design programs will have tools that do it for you, but those can be limited or not customizable. However, there are plenty of online tools that can help you out… let’s look at a few of the best.

01. Paletton

Paletton’s monochromatic setting automatically generates a palette of tints and shades from a base color—which you can choose at random from the color wheel, or punch in an RGB code to start with a specific hue.

Use the Free Style setting to add more base colors, anywhere from two to four. The “Presets” tab at the bottom (see second image below) offers a selection of even more variations based on your original color choices.

02. Material Palette

Material Palette is more basic, and can be helpful when you need a quick color fix. You’re offered a limited selection of bright colors (inspired by Google’s Material Design style) plus a few neutrals and are instructed to pick two. When you do, you’re given an automatically generated palette of your first color pick (plus one tint and one shade), your second color pick as an accent color, and a selection of neutrals.

03. Colour Code

Colour Code palette builder is simple and easy to use. Just pick a scheme from the panel on the left (monochrome, monochrome & dark gray, or monochrome & light gray will be your best bets for palettes based on tints and shades) and then drag your mouse around in all directions until you see a combination you like.

Ways to Apply Tints and Shades

Once you have a palette picked out, it’s time to apply your choices to your design. Lighter or darker variations of a base color can add contrast, visual interest, and versatility to your color schemes. Need some inspiration for how to apply them? Check out the following ideas and examples:

01. Create Cohesive Branding

Having shades and tints of one color that you can use for various purposes and effects across various pieces of collateral will give your branding a polished, unified look. These two branding packages by design studio Mast demonstrate the flexibility and creativity that you can achieve in your projects with tints and shades.

The first set features multiple variations of its medium-blue base color, while the second effectively makes use of just a base color plus one darker shade. Notice how both reds (as well as graphic elements featured in the designs) are drawn from the brand’s logo—a nice touch that reinforces the company’s visual identity.

02. Add Contrast

Contrast is key to good visibility and easy navigation in any design. Pairing one of your lightest tints with one of your darkest shades is an easy way to create contrast. Michael Hildebrand has done that here with his event poster. The pale pink text at the bottom of the poster stands out nicely against the deeper pink, almost magenta, background. That contrast is reversed for the small text box that says “4th Annual” near the top, and the combination of the two colors is effective either way.

As another example, this calendar design by Szende Brassai features at least four tint/shades of aqua and two of the coral color (plus some neutrals)—and juxtaposes them in such a way to highlight their differences—to create a high-contrast, visually interesting design. The contrast between warm and cool color temperatures also maximizes the effect.

03. Blend In

Color can be used to help design elements stand out by contrast, but, applied differently, it can also cause elements to blend together or look more understated. The following book cover, designed by Robert Frank Hunter, features shades and tints of blue that don’t have a lot of contrast. This makes the whole background illustration recede a little so the typography stands out.

04. Simplify & Separate

If all the pieces of a design were of a similar color, tone, or saturation, it would be hard to tell one element from another. That’s where tints and shades can come in handy. When you have a lot of information to organize, using color variation can help visually separate different parts of your layout. Plus, a palette that shares a base color will prevent an already-busy design from looking needlessly cluttered or visually overwhelming with too many color choices.

William Mellor’s infographic features just a green base color and one lighter tint, in addition to black and white, to keep things clean and simple and section off the design.

Tints and shades of blue are used in a similar way in the following website design by Owen Shifflett. The muted tones help the colorful product imagery stand out while giving the site’s visual structure depth and a clear sense of organization.

05. Create Depth & Dimension

One of the most common uses for tints and shades, particularly in art and illustration, is to create the illusion of depth and/or dimension.

This can take the form of color applied to represent light or shadow, as with this piece by Mads Berg that’s inspired by vintage travel posters. Notice how a few well-placed swaths of color—particularly the shades of dark gray on the boat and dark blue in the sky and water—create curvature and depth that give the illustration an almost 3D appearance.

To continue the sailing theme, this pair of posters from DKNG Studios joints two tint/shade families (one warm and one cool) to create intricate, layered artwork. The color choices also suggest certain times of day and give the posters a sense of atmosphere, which brings us to our next technique…

06. Establish a Mood or Theme

Color has a unique ability to infuse your designs with mood and emotion. Take a second glance at the concert posters we just looked at above. Don’t they seem to represent summer, vacations, warm tropical locales, and lazy evenings? The color choices play a big role in communicating those feelings and creating a sense of atmosphere.

Color can also give projects context, reinforcing or clarifying existing themes or imagery. Here, the bold shades and tints Alan Cheetham used to design these labels give off a friendly, modern mood. But the colors also represent the scent of each candle.

In a similar way, Veronica Lethorn’s packaging designs feature pairs of colors (often a base color plus a tint) that give the line a fresh, appealing, and contemporary look, but that also tie into each product’s flavor.

07. Use Gradients

Gradients are a great way to apply multiple tints and/or shades at once. Especially when used with transparency effects, they are a subtle option for adding more color to your designs.

Hyperakt’s event invitations use gradients in two ways. If you look closely at the front image (left), you’ll see that many of the triangles that form the silhouette graphics have their own gradients; this helps add dimension and texture to the illustration. A subtle gradient also forms the background of the inner portion of the invite (right).

This packaging by Brandexpert features a transparent gradient as a small part of the whole design. It pulls colors from the background image to create a space where text is more easily readable.

08. Expand a Limited Color Palette

For whatever reason, let’s say you’re limited as to the number of colors you can use in a design—maybe due to brand guidelines or printing requirements, or even just as a stylistic choice. Depending on the specifications of your project, you may be able to expand your palette with tints and shades.

Here, Julie Wauters has designed a striking children’s book cover using only tints/shades of green and pink, with the addition of black and white. The composition is in no way lacking in visual variety or detail due to so few hues; the tints and shades provide her with all the colors she needs.

09. Use Transparency

Transparent shapes and backgrounds can serve many purposes in a design, and when you’re using a color scheme of tints and shades, they can expand your palette. When you layer two transparent tints or shades, you’re creating another shade where they overlap. See Julian Bauer’s book covers below as an example.

You can also use transparency as a shortcut for creating tints and shades by layering a transparent base color over white or black. Oliver Lo achieves a similar effect by layering red tints and shades over black-and-white photography for this film series poster.

10. Keep It Simple

When you want a design with a minimal or understated style, a monochromatic (or one-color) palette will help your toward your goal. Monochromatic color schemes often depend on tints and shades to provide enough variations to work with, but retain the clean aesthetic and simplicity of a single color.

This conference program designed by Chris Ross features only tints of yellow (we won’t count the black and white), along with geometric shapes for a striking, modern composition.

Even an almost-monochromatic palette can help simplify a design, as with the example below. In addition to the two blues, Steve Wolf has added off-white as a neutral and a small pop of red as an accent color. The result is still an attractively clear and uncomplicated design.

11. Create Shapes and Patterns

Tints and shades don’t have to be used one at a time. You can arrange and combine them to form shapes, patterns, or other graphic elements to give your projects some extra pizzazz.

Chloe Park’s business cards apply gradually darkening shades to a series of geometric shapes to add some visual interest to an otherwise unremarkable, solid-color background.

And this coffee packaging from Starbucks (creative direction by Mike Peck) takes the concept a few steps further, combining tints and shades in multiple color families, with transparency and blending effects, to create an eye-catching patterned background.

12. Double (or Triple) the Fun

Choosing two different sets of tints/shades for your designs can make for a versatile and visually interesting color palette. For example, Michael Hildebrand’s promotional material for a restaurant mixes tints/shades of red and a golden tan color. The more neutral tan both offsets and enhances the more intense red.

As you can see by the strip of colors at the bottom of this image, Megan Clark has chosen three complementary tint/shade sets (in blue, green, and gray) for this branding project. She keeps the palette from getting out of hand by limiting each set to just two colors, one tint and one shade.

13. Don’t Forget the Text

There’s no rule that says text has to be black, white, or gray—it can be colored, too! In fact, tints and shades provide an easy opportunity to tie your whole design together, including typography. Depending on what’s behind it, applying a colored shade or tint to your text can be a nice alternative to black or white.

Francesco Poroli put this idea to work by applying his palette of purples across both text and imagery for a unified look.

In a different approach, Stephanie-Ann Savage’s design for an educational booklet places tinted text against its base hue for a colorful and unique table of contents.

And That’s a Wrap

We hope you’ve collected some inspiring ideas for how to apply tints and shades to your design projects. For more color-focused tips and resources, make sure to check out the blog’s Color Theory and Design Elements & Principles categories.

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Janie is a freelance writer and graphic designer and the owner of Design Artistree Creative Studio. After college, she built on her background in art to explore design...and loved it. Now, she enjoys finding ways to combine the craftsmanship of traditional fine arts with the digital possibilities of graphic design.

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