Seeing is Believing: The Psychology of Color
Try imagining a blue can of Coca-Cola, or a red Whole Foods logo, or a brown Apple on the center of your laptop. It’s jarring, right?
That’s because each of these companies has mastered the art of color psychology (or chromology, if you want to impress your friends). In their own way, Coca-Cola, Whole Foods, and Apple have skillfully and strategically matched their choice of colors with the specific brand image they seek to cultivate.
It’s tricky to determine just how much color impacts our psychology since it works in concert with so many other variables. People respond differently to colors based on culture, memories, personal experience, gender, age, and a myriad of other factors. Where one person might look at a bright red website background and see excitement, or passion, someone else might interpret it as panic, or urgency.
Still, there’s no denying that color plays a larger role in our decision-making than we might think. The right colors – whether in the interior of your store, or in your brand’s logo, or on the banner ad of your website – allow you to control the conversation: you get to make your audience feel, think, and ultimately behave in the way you want them to. Colors allow you to shape perceptions of your brand.
Considering your goals is a crucial first step in selecting a color scheme that defines your brand. Are you trying to reach a more vibrant, youthful audience? To portray your brand as strong and reliable and trustworthy? To instill a sense of mystique and elegance into your brand? The strength of your brand depends, in large part, on your ability to match color to your desired brand personality.
How do specific colors impact our mood and emotional state?
It seems hard to believe, but some colors can actually elicit physiological responses. Red has been proven to raise one’s heart rate and blood pressure, increase metabolism, and boost one’s appetite. Red is a power color, both energizing and attention-grabbing. It has been shown to trigger strong emotions, both positive and negative.
Not as “in charge” as red, orange has been associated with feelings of creativity, friendliness, and playfulness. It’s bold and eye-catching and can be effective if you want to instill your brand with a sense of freedom and light-hearted fun. Careful though, too much orange can be off-putting and may prevent your brand from being taken seriously
Even children, in their earliest sunshine drawings, understand the power of yellow to inject a jolt of positivity onto the page. Yellow brings about feelings of happiness, joy, and optimism and is especially eye-catching when used in small doses. A splash of yellow – think the IKEA logo, or the yellow sunshine in Wal-Mart’s logo – can engender warm, cheerful associations with your brand.
Green is typically associated with all things nature, growth, and harmony. So, it’s no wonder it’s so often used in organic and health-related products. If your goal is to link your brand with nature, or to emphasize the healthy aspects of your brand, green may fit the bill. A word of caution: green is sometimes associated with negative qualities like envy and greed.
More than any other color, blue evokes feelings of trust, stability, and strength. Studies have revealed blue is preferred among both males and females. A major goal of any brand is to gain the long-term trust of its audience, blue is one of the most popular colors in branding. Of course, this means that if a brand relies too heavily on blue, it runs the risk of blending in rather than standing out.
Throughout history, the color purple has been associated with luxury and royalty. In more recent times, it has been shown to generate feelings of spirituality and imagination. In small doses, purple can signal that your brand is one of class and sophistication. There’s nothing subtle about purple, though, so be careful of overuse.
Any high school English student can tell you that white often symbolizes innocence, goodness, and purity. For branding purposes, white can accomplish a clean, modern look. One study from the University of Toronto reveals that people tend to prefer simple color schemes to overly complex ones, which explains why so many brands – Apple and Adidas, to name a few – feature white as central color contrasted with black or grey. A white background is also ideal for readability, which is crucial; if your audience can’t read your message, they can’t be persuaded.
Black is the absence of color, but when used effectively, it can make more of a statement than just about any other color. Black conveys power, mystique, and class; it’s why a black suit will never go out of style. But considering your target audience is key: while black may convey sophistication in a fashion-related product, it can generate feelings of sadness, negativity, and even death. Black as the central color in a health-related brand, or in a brand targeting children, may be a poor choice.
Gray conveys a sense of balance, of neutrality, of calm. It is, by definition, an in-between color that doesn’t evoke powerful feelings on its own. If your product speaks for itself, or if you’re seeking a certain minimalist aesthetic, gray can work. There’s nothing bold about gray, though, and you run the risk of a dull logo or boring website design.
Study after study has shown that brown is the least-liked color across genders. So why do brands like UPS continue to employ such an unpopular color? Brown is an earthy color that generates feelings of strength and protection, of structure and conservatism. For anyone awaiting an important package, they want to know their carrier is dependable, above all, and the choice of brown – while a bit drab – works well for a brand like UPS.
First, Know Your Brand
In an important 2011 study, researchers Lauren Labrecque and George Milne outlined the “five dimensions” of brand personality: competence, sincerity, excitement, sophistication, ruggedness. Your brand can’t be everything at once. Before pinning down a color scheme, identify the story you want to tell about your brand. Then, select colors that are most effective in pushing that story out into the world.
Contrast is Everything
Pablo Picasso once asked, “Why do two colors, when put together, sing?” We may not know the “why,” but the “how” comes down to one word: contrast. Dark on light or light on dark is readable, which is your first priority. After all, if your audience can’t read your message, they can’t be persuaded by your message.
Sometimes, Less is More
Don’t overdo it when deciding on a color scheme. A 2011 study revealed that audiences generally prefer looking at only 2-3 colors at once. And it makes sense: in a film with six leading actors or actresses, each one minimizes the impact of the others. Your goal is to direct your audience toward certain colors that pop, which can only happen if you keep a simple aesthetic with few colors.