Color psychology: a guide to using color in design, marketing and branding
A spectrum of emotion and meaning
Color – it’s all around us. Brightening up our day, or darkening it. Stimulating excitement, or helping us relax. Every second of the day we’re processing the vast spectrum of colors visible around us, which have a huge impact on our mood, feelings, thoughts and senses.
The idea of color as something synonymous with emotions has been explored by some of our greatest artists, from color field painters such as Mark Rothko, who created vast painted canvases presenting color in its purest form, Pablo Picasso, who said: “Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions,” and Wassily Kandinsky who described color as “a power which directly influences the soul.”
The idea that color evokes something deeper inside us has informed everything from fashion to branding and marketing – all fields in which color is used as a statement – and an understanding of color psychology has become a vital tool in helping designers make choices in their work, whether its for an advert, t-shirt design or the concept for an office interior.
However, colors – and trends around them – change, so don’t take color psychology as something that’s fixed. Two years ago, an online survey by paper company GF Smith dubbed a shade of teal called Marrs Green the “world’s most popular color”. Caroline Till, the editor of Viewpoint Colour Magazine, told Dezeen she felt this was due to an increased interest in the natural world.
“As the contemporary condition of ‘nature deficit’ rises in the context of increasingly urban and digital lifestyles, we seek to reconnect with the natural world, hence the current global popularity of the colour green,” she said.
So its popularity seemed linked to wider social trends rather than something innate. Just as millennial pink came and went, so might Marrs Green lose its global appeal over time.
But the way color and meaning changes is what makes color psychology such an interesting field to explore, and to help you understand the basics, we’ve put together this full spectrum guide which covers the basics, as well as the meanings and emotions we associate with each color.
Color psychology: a guide to using color in design, marketing and branding
What is color psychology?
How does color impact on the brain?
Why is color important in design and branding?
Why is color important for fashion?
What are the psychological effects of different colors?
- Red color psychology
- Blue color psychology
- Yellow color psychology
- Green color psychology
- Orange color psychology
- Pink color psychology
- Purple color psychology
- White color psychology
- Black color psychology
- Grey color psychology
- Brown color psychology
The study of hues and their impact on human behaviour, color psychology is a fascinating field that seeks to understand and utilise the way color can influence our moods, feelings and choices. Color psychology leans on the following six basic principles:
- Color can carry a specific meaning.
- Color meaning is either based in learned meaning or biologically innate meaning.
- The perception of a color causes evaluation automatically by the person perceiving.
- The evaluation process forces color-motivated behavior.
- Color usually exerts its influence automatically.
- Color meaning and effect has to do with context as well.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung was a pioneering researcher in this area, writing on the symbolism of color and exploring how it could be a tool in psychotherapy, but it was only in it was only in 2004 that the psychologists Russell Hill and Robert Barton at the University of Durham began to investigate the theories behind it, conducting a study into the impact of the color red and finding some interesting effects – such as the fact that people rated others as more attractive if they wore red – though they noted “the work is at a very early stage of development.”
Though much of the research in the field remains anecdotal, color psychology remains a prominent school of thought in marketing and branding (as well as art and design) where it is used to inform choices made by designers to evoke behaviour in people. In an op-ed published in April, the COO of 99Designs Pamela Webber said: “A quick glance at your logo, website or in-store decor can tell a shopper what style, price range and personality your products offer just by what colors are prominent…retail color selection is more than just aesthetics—the right colors can actually help close a sale.”
However, it is important to note that the impact of color varies according to the individual (see the World’s Favourite Colour project’s report on the subtle distinctions between gender and age), demographic and in different cultures, where colors will have different associations. The meaning of colors are not universal around the world.
To understand how color impacts on the brain, first it’s important to understand the process through which light is processed. The eye has two functions; it contains light sensitive “cones” at the back of the eye, which send signals to the brain – specifically the visual cortex – where the images we see are created.
More recently, however, it has become understood that other cells in the retina that respond to light send signals to the hypothalamus – a part of the brain that doesn’t play a role in forming visual images, but instead is responsible for the release of hormones that control regulatory functions of the body such as temperature, sleep, hunger and circadian rhythms. For example – in the morning, exposure to light – particularly blue and green light – prompts the release of cortisol, which helps us wake up. At night, a reduction in blue light results in the release of melatonin that makes us sleepy.
What this means is that light – and color – impacts on our bodily responses in a way that is distinct from our vision. It can affect our physiology, from heart rate, anxiety to general arousal.
As we have developed an understanding of the psychological and physiological impact of colour on our body and mind, so the field of color psychology has been adopted in marketing as a tool to evoke an emotional response consumers will associate with a brand or product.
Color can affect consumer decisions – whether its buying a new product, or developing loyalty with a specific brand. Purple, for example, is a color associated with luxury and relaxation – this is why it has become so prevalent when used for packaging for luxury chocolate and toiletries. If a fancy chocolate bar was packaged in bright orange – would you be as inclined to buy it?
Understanding past brand associations with colors is important too – if a certain color is prevalent in a particular product range, it’s worth considering whether choosing a radically different hue will help your product stand out, or simply confuse or deter potential customers.
For much the same reason as color can play a role in evoking emotion around products and branding, color is absolutely fundamental to fashion design. Fashion helps us make a statement about who we are, what mood we’re in that day, what kind of statement we’re trying to make, whether we are trying to blend in or stand out or appear masculine or feminine. Some experts even suggest it can help with your relationship. As the designer Marc Jacobs put it: “Color is the finishing touch on everything”.
Color, and the associations of different colours, are crucial to helping us communicate something through what we wear – whether it’s casual clothing or a uniform. For example, you might not wear a bright red dress to work, but you would wear it to a party. Some studies have actually found that atheletes that wear red – a colour we associate with speed, sex, strength and authority – have a higher chance of winning, while it has also been noted by psychologists that when a doctor dons a white coat, their mind actually becomes sharper.
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There are a huge range of psychological effects of different colors. Warm colors at the red end of the spectrum – like red, orange and yellow – are associated with warmth, but also anger. While the blue end of the spectrum, cool colors – like blue, purple and green – are associated with calm but also melancholy.
We’ve run through the eleven main colors, with a summary of the emotional associations and meanings of them, as well as some examples of brands that have used those colors to effect.
One of the boldest and most evocative colors, red is associated with strength, power and energy, as well as passion and – as the valentines hearts might suggest – love and desire. As an attention grabbing color, it also has an association with warnings and danger. Dark reds and burgundy can evoke something more sensual and luxe. It is commonly used in branding for products that are fast, aggressive, sexy and energised – look at Ferrari, for example.
Brands that use red: Coca Cola, Toyota, Marlboro, Nescafe, CNN, Canon, Puma, Ferrari
A cool color, blue can be associated with just that; evoking feelings of serenity, tranquility and calm. However just as the phrase “feeling blue” suggests depression, the color can also be associated with sadness, coldness and distance. Blue is a very popular color – most people’s favourite and as a result is also a more conservative choice for branding, though this can also suggest trust – hence its popularity in the information and financial sector.
Brands that use blue: IBM, Samsung, General Electric, American Express, Dell, Facebook, Dove
Yellow is the color of sunshine – as a result it has a strong association with happiness and joy, energy and enlightenment. It can also evoke the idea of jealousy and – as a color that is always bright – caution and warning. Brands associated with speed often use yellow.
Brands that use yellow: DHL, Hertz, Post-It, McDonalds, Subway, Snapchat
A cool and organic color, Green symbolises renewal, regrowth and the natural world – it’s also soothing and refreshing – its calming effects explain its use in “green rooms” where people can relax before appearing on TV. Shades like aqua can suggest healing or protection, while dark green suggests ambition and wealth.
Brands that use green: Whole Foods, Animal Planet, TicTac, Land Rover, Tropicana, Spotify, BP
Happy, energetic and attention grabbing, orange is a popular color in advertising. It’s also associated with vitality, enthusiasm and flamboyance, though it can also be perceived as insincere. Overall, orange is a color that screams “fun” and this is reflected in the brands that use it.
Brands that use orange: Nickelodeon, Fanta, Crush, Harley Davidson, Rockstar Games, Penguin Books, Walkman, Orange, Amazon
A colour associated with softness, love and femininity pink – like red – is also strongly associated with love and romance. Pink is also a color that can evoke optimism and innocence, as well as a sense of care or tenderness. It is often used by brands that associate with treats.
Brands that use pink: Baskin and Robbins, Victoria’s Secret, Donut King, Barbie, Cosmopolitan, Roxy
Purple is a color that appears rarely in nature, this is one reason it has associations of mystery and spiritualism and intrigue – it was, literally, a more expensive color to produce dyes for, hence its association with royalty and wealth and this is reflected in the way it is often used in branding and marketing. Purple is a color that evokes pomp, ceremony and exoticism.
Brands that use purple: Cadbury’s, Milka, Hallmark, Asprey, Purdey’s, Aussie, Yahoo!
White has strong associations with purity and innocence (think of traditions such as white wedding dresses), as well as cleanliness or simplicity, but it can also come across as bland, sterile, cold and clinical.
Brands that use white: Michelin, Volkswagen, Ford, Mini, Tesla, North Face, Nivea
Black is used to represent a wide range of ideas around the world; from death and mourning to life and rebirth, but in branding it’s a serious colour, associated with being formal, bold, determined and high-end. While being linked to mystery – black is the absence of light – it is also linked to power and luxury.
Brands that use black: New York Times, BBC, Chanel, Adidas, Prada, Nike, Louis Vuitton, WWF, Gillette
A neutral color – also often described as “balanced” – grey is a color of conformism and responds to the colors around it. But it is also a sophisticated color – serious, without the stronger connotations of the color black. It is associated with ideas around modernity and intellectualism – something that really makes sense when you see which brands make use of it.
Brands that use gray: Apple, Forbes, Mercedes Benz, Wikipedia, WordPress, Swarovski
Like green, brown is considered a natural color and is associated with the planet and earthiness – as a result its also associated with ideas around solidity and is viewed as dependent. It’s a warm color and as a result brings up feelings of security and comfort – brands that want to communicate a message of down-to-earth reliability often use brown.
Brands that use brown: UPS, Hershey, J.P. Morgan, Yves Saint Laurent, M&Ms
Color psychology offers a lens through which to view colors and their emotional associations. This can be a vital tool for anyone working in branding, design, marketing or fashion, as it can help inform the choices you make when it comes to color. As the artist Paul Klee “Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet” and its power should never be underestimated.