Subject: Art/Design

Essential Question

What is the science behind color theory, and how is it used in fashion and album cover design?


It starts with a black canvas. A shape is added—three slender white lines merging to form a triangle. Then, from a source unknown, a beam of light shoots in from the left, hitting the triangle at such a precise upward angle that it miraculously travels through it, spilling out the other side in a perfect rainbow of color. It descends at an even pace until it passes beyond the right border of the canvas and vanishes just as mysteriously as it appeared. It’s just an image–there’s no sound involved–yet it has become a visual icon of Rock music.

The cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most celebrated pieces of album artwork and commercial art ever created. The design, created by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell of the London-based photography and design collective Hipgnosis (with help from George Hardie), has been printed on the packaging of over 50 million recordings, and some suggest more than a billion people have laid eyes upon it.

The Dark Side of the Moon album cover is a reference to a scientific discovery that has influenced visual artists for centuries. In the 1660s, English mathematician, astronomer and scientist Sir Isaac Newton began experimenting with light by holding a prism against a window. Through these experiments, he demonstrated that light is responsible for creating color. His further investigations led to the creation of the principles of color theory, which today remains an essential tool for artists and designers alike.

In this lesson, students learn about the color theory, and use the color wheel to analyze musician fashion and album covers. They then draw upon the color wheel as a tool to design their own album covers.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The scientific principles of color theory
    • What the color wheel is and how it functions as a design tool in visual arts and fashion
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to demonstrate the principles of color theory through the analysis and creation of visual art and fashion.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • When you get dressed in the morning, how do you choose the various pieces of your outfit?
    • Do you consider the combinations of colors you wear?
    • Do you feel any combinations look particularly well on you?
    • Are there any colors you won’t put together? Why?
  2. Distribute Handout 1 – Musician Fashion. After completing the handout, have students volunteer to discuss their answers.


  1. Tell students that today they will be examining the role color theory plays in creating visual designs.
  2. Display Image 1 – The Color Wheel, and tell students that the foundation of color theory is represented in the color wheel. Ask students:
    • Have you seen a chart like this before?
    • What does this chart seem to be representing?
    • What does the innermost circle show? (Students should note the primary colors.)
    • What does the middle circle show? What are those colors combinations of?
    • What does the outermost circle show? What are those colors the combination of?
  3. Distribute Handout 2 – Color Theory to each student. Ask students to read the handout, and, drawing upon what they learned, note on a piece of paper the color theory principles of the costume they chose in the previous activity. Their notes should include the color categories (primary, secondary, tertiary) and the various kinds of color harmony (monochromatic, complementary, analogous, triadic) that are used in the costume. Have students volunteer to share their analysis. Then ask students:
    • Which costumes do you think used principles of color harmony? Which did not?
    • Where do you think black and white fits in with principles of color harmony? Why might they not be included? (Black and white are usually considered “neutrals” to designers. Scientifically, they are generally are not considered true “colors,” because black is the absence of light and white is a combination of all the colors.)
    • If black and white are ignored as “neutrals,” do more outfits on the handout adhere to the principles of color theory?  
  4. Tell students they will be now analyzing how principles of color theory may be used in album covers. Hang up the Album Cover images around the classroom, and pass out to each student Handout 3 – Gallery Walk Worksheet. Tell students to walk around the classroom and take notes on each album cover using Handout 3. They should feel free to consult Handout 2 as a reminder of color theory principles.
  5. After the gallery walk, ask students to share their favorite album cover, and the notes they took on Handout 3 on the use of color on the album cover. Continue until most of the album covers featured in the gallery walk have been addressed. Ask students:
    • While doing the gallery walk, what did you notice about the relationship between color and the emotional effect an album cover had on you? Did some colors or color combinations consistently make you feel a certain way?
    • Which album covers had easily identifiable principles of color harmony, as described in Handout 2? In which covers were color harmony principles harder to identify?  
    • Do you think the album covers that adhered to the color harmony principles described in Handout 2 worked better than those that broke the rules? Why or why not?
  6. Tell students that all the albums they examined during the gallery walk were included in Billboard’s list of best album covers of 2017. Ask students:
    • In what ways do you think the use of color might have contributed to the inclusion of these albums on the Billboard list?
    • Which albums do you think might have been included on the list thanks to their color harmony principles?
    • For which albums might have color been less important than other design factors?
    • Do you agree with Billboard? Did you find these album covers to be well designed? Why or why not?

Summary Activity:

  1. Make your own album cover! In groups of 3-4, ask students to pretend they are in a band together and are designing the cover of their first album. Allow time for groups to discuss what kind of band they imagine being (heavy metal, rap, country, etc.), and design an album cover that reflects their band’s music.
  2. Collect and display the student-designed album covers. For each album cover, ask the class: 
    • How might have the color wheel been utilized for this design?
    • What emotion is conveyed in this design?
    • If you had to guess, what kind of music might be featured on an album that looks like this?
  3. After asking the class questions, ask the group to describe the motivation behind their album cover:
    • What emotion or feeling were you trying to convey with this design?
    • How did you use the color wheel as an aid in designing this album cover?
    • Were you thinking of any particular style of music when designing this album?
    • Did anything surprise you about the class’s reaction to your design? Did they respond to it in a way that surprised you?

Extension Activity:

  1. Imagine that you are filming a video, making a public appearance, or performing on stage as a superstar artist. Design an outfit for yourself. Then explain your motivation, when you would wear the outfit, and  how you used the principles of color theory in the design.
  2. Do some online research on color psychology and the way colors might evoke certain emotions. Then, think about one of your favorite albums: do the colors on the cover match the emotions of the music? Using the album you chose as evidence, consider the validity of the ideas behind color psychology – do the theories of color psychology match the color and emotion combination featured in the album you chose?    


National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard #1: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and artwork.
  •  Anchor Standard #2: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.
  •  Anchor Standard #3: Refine and complete artist work.


  • Anchor Standard #4: Select, analyze and interpret artistic work for presentation.
  • Anchor Standard #5: Develop and refine artistic technique and work for presentation.
  • Anchor Standard #6: Convey meaning through the presentation of work.


  • Anchor Standard #7: Perceive and analyze artistic.
  • Anchor Standard #8: Interpret intent and meaning artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard #9:  Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard #10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experience to art.
  • Anchor Standard # 11: Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understand.  

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
  • A2.0 Apply artistic skills and processes to solve a variety of industry-relevant problems in a variety of traditional and electronic media.
  • A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
  • A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
  • A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
  • B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.

Production and Managerial Arts (C)

  • C6.0 Understand the key elements of developing and promoting a production from creation to distribution.