I have been fascinated by my reactions to colour and how in certain contexts they play a big role in decisions I make. While researching into the psychology of colour, I learnt a lot about colours and their meanings to people. If you know what you want to evoke when a customer looks at your product packaging or service branding then look to colour to tell your story, it’s one part of crafting your brand story.
But first let’s take some time to understand colour, what is it exactly? In order to see colours, we have to have light, when light shines on an object some light is absorbed and others are reflected. Light that is reflected is what our eyes see e.g. a yellow car, all other light is absorbed but yellow is reflected so that’s what we see.
Interesting to note, our eyes can only pick up certain light wavelengths as seen below in the visible and invisible light.
NOTE: How did we name individual colours from the spectrum. Looking at the spectrum and its perfect multi-colour gradient with all the colours seamlessly blending into each other and no clear start or end point. Who sorted and categorised the spectrum and started the naming convention? We won’t go into that now, but you read on here about how we gave colours names.
Let’s get academic – The theory of colour
The theory of colour is a discipline that stretches back to at least the 15th century. It encompasses chemistry, physics and mathematics to effectively explain colour. But we do not have to delve that far to effectively use colour.
2 primary colour systems
There are 2 primary colour systems (to reproduce colour) we use on a daily basis additive & subtractive. Anything that emits light (sun, screen or projector) uses additive and everything else reflects colour and uses subtractive colour.
- Additive works with anything that emits light such as your computer screen. The more light you add the lighter and brighter. Primary colours Red, Green, Blue (RGB) are the building blocks, with white the combination of all colours and black the absence of any colour.
- Subtractive works on the basis of reflected colour and has three primary colours of cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY) but this system is imperfect so we need to add a fourth compensating colour called a ‘key”(CMYK). This is because the 3 colours we have don’t fully absorb all light ending up with a muddy brown instead of a pure black.
NOTE: The primary colours(yellow, red & blue) we were taught to paint with in school are wrong. The actual correct primary colours are yellow, magenta & cyan. The proof is in your printer cartridges.
The colour wheel
The colour wheel is where you need to start when planning a colour scheme or branding for your business and for sales and marketing campaigns. The colour wheel consists of primary, secondary and tertiary colours.
- Primary: red, yellow and blue, these colours can not be made from any other colours and are the building blocks of the other categories.
- Secondary: orange, green, violet are formed by mixing the primary colours.
- Tertiary: yellow-orange, red- orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green and yellow-green. Tertiary colours are formed by mixing primary and secondary colours.
Branding – what is it and why is it important?
Branding is a marketing practice of creating unique name, identity, image and values for a business. It is essentially the personality of your company. Colour is one of the primary elements of your personal brand.
People are time short and only pay attention to certain attributes (like colour & shape) psychologists call this “salient clues“. It has been proven that people only pay attention to what they need for the task at hand i.e. recognising the brand. So the shape and colour should stand out then people will take a closer look. (round shapes are more trustworthy & straight sharp edges are more striking).
Colours and their meanings
Below are some associations or meanings we have for colours in our world. These are not hard and fast rules, the context in which the colours are shown gives it meaning.We are using colour to communicate the value of our product or service. The colour tints were generated from color hex.
- Tint: when a colour is mixed with white to brighten it
- Shade: when a colour is mixed with black to darken it
- Tone: when a colour is mixed with grey or by both tinting and shading
Red – Passionate, Aggressive, Important
Orange – Playful, Energetic, Cheap
Yellow – Happy, Friendly, Warning
Green – Natural, Stable, Prosperous
Blue – Serene, Trustworthy, Inviting
Violet – Luxurious, Mysterious, Romantic
Pink – Feminine, Young, Innocent
Black – Powerful, Sophisticated, Edgy
Brown – Earthy, Sturdy, Rustic
Grey – Neutral, Formal, Gloomy
White – Clean, Virtuous, Healthy
Beige – Accentuates surrounding colours
When creating or refining your brand identity think about pairing your main colour with a complimentary colour or use the 3 grouping guides below. In colour matching we have complimentary, analogous and triad.
- Complementary: these are any to colours directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as red, green,
- Analogous: are 3 colours side by side on the colour wheel consisting of one primary, secondary/tertiary
- Triad: These colours are evening spaced on the colour wheel
Colour the world
Colour is such a pervasive part of everything we encounter visually in our world, it evokes emotions which in turn drives decision making. To persuade you need to evoke emotion and colours appeal to our emotions both consciously and subconsciously.
Consumers use visual cues to identify brands and colour comes first, after all our brain processes visuals 60,000x faster than text.
Is there One Rule?
There is a lot of contradictory information written about colour theory across the web stating “X colour is the best colour for X”. This is just not the case. You need to test what works for your brand in your industry.
One thing the research studies does show is that there is no universal “One Rule” for each colour. So when you see these types of statements, take them with a pinch of salt and do some testing of your own.
Think of each colour in context of its environment, for example do you have a mostly grey, white or muted colours on your website then make your call to action button(s) green or red. By having this high contrasting colour sitting on plain background the eye will naturally be drawn to the high contrasting coloured button.
Colour(s) can mean different things in different contexts. For example red can mean warning or danger when seen road signage or warning labels, but on a greeting card it can mean love or romance. Red can stop people from clicking on your checkout button, but green could results in an increase in purchases. You never know until you test.
NOTE: only change one thing at a time, so you can predict what caused the increase/decrease. This is called A/B testing.
In understanding the psychology of colour, it’s important to know that colours like black & white have different meanings in different cultures e.g. west versus east. If you are a”westerner” (derived from and influenced by European cultures) you know black is the colour of finality, death and formality and appropriate and funerals whilst white is the colour for purity and peace so perfect for weddings.
As an”easterner” (from central Asia and far east countries) you instead see white as the colour of death and appropriate for funerals while black represents wealth, health and prosperity and can be seen at weddings.
Make sure you know who your users are, if they are mainly from eastern countries then match your colours accordingly.
The Psychology of Colour
Now onto the psychology of colour. But what is psychology? This is the science of the mind. Our minds are the most complex machines in the world and the source of all thought and behaviour.
Once we know more about colour the next step is to understand preferences and these are different according to gender. Both men and women have blue as their top colour.
Women like: blue, purple, green Men like: blue, green, black
Colour effects your mood
This is one facet of colour psychology that I have noticed myself when choosing to wear a blue t-shirt for a calming effect or yellow for happy etc. The colour you use on your website, packaging and service branding will set a mood for your business whether you mean to or not. These are also not things that customers actively notice but it does make a difference.
Colours and emotion
Colours and decision making
Red – used on this site for grabbing attention and it matches the nature of the business; exciting blood rushing experiences.
Yellow – used for this wealth management company, it plays nicely on the name of the company “Yellow Brick Road” the site is mostly grey and the attention-grabbing yellow was used for all the CTAs.
Blue – used to create trust and to induce calmness & security, as a wealth management company with the goal of increasing personal wealth, people can be anxious to use them. Trust and security are important attributes to have in your corner.
Purple – the second favourite colour of women is used well knowing the target audience of this website and the service of image consulting. This can be an anxious/scary topic for many women and purple can induce soothing and calmness with the image of royalty. Nervous women want to feel calm and special about prospective image make-over.
Pink – is a feminine colour and the dominant colour used on this Australian cosmetics website. CTA are pink contrasting with a white background.
Black – used well to portray the powerful, premium exclusive nature of private helicopter flights around the Gold Coast. Orange is used well as the contrasting CTA.
By writing this in-depth article for marketers on the Psychology of Colour my aim was to educate, surprise and inspire on how important the effect of colour can be for any visitor to your website. Make sure you test your colour selection.
Although colour is one part of having a great website (e.g. design, layout, balance are needed too), done right it can make a big impact. We are after all dealing with humans with emotions & not robots. Having this extra information on colour can help you improve your conversions, not just limited to offering sales/discounts.
Colours are wonderful, beautiful and create an atmosphere; warmth, belonging or meaning.