What is color?
Most people could come up with a simple answer to that question.
For graphic designers and marketing professionals, the response is usually far more complicated.
Color is one of the most valuable tools in a graphic designer’s or marketer’s tool kit. Proper use of it gives them the power to be able to control what people think, how they feel and the actions they take.
Colors can either clarify your messaging, or confuse it. But there is no one-size-fits-all. Branding is a story; you need to identify your story even before you start picking out colors. Ask yourself: “Where are we going with this?”
Aislinn Barry, SketchDeck head of digital services
That power comes from having a solid understanding of color psychology. Here’s everything you need to know about this complex field. Once you have a mastery of it, you’ll be able to optimize your use of color in your brand, along with your marketing and sales efforts.
Color psychology: The fundamentals.
Color psychology is the academic and scientific discipline that studies how colors — and combinations of them — affect people’s perceptions and behaviors.
Color psychology is often leveraged by the best marketers and graphic designers. It helps them figure out how to use colors to make their brands attractive to the people in their target audience, get them to think and feel things about their products and services and compel them to make purchases.
All designers and marketers should have a mastery of color psychology before they develop new brands, update existing ones and create marketing and sales support assets. Many studies have found that in certain business segments and situations, color may have the biggest impact on people’s buying decisions, even more than messaging and imagery. Use the right colors and you can improve business results. Use the wrong ones and you could end up driving business to your more color-savvy competitors.
Color isn’t one thing to all people.
Scientists and academics have been trying to categorize colors for decades, assigning meanings and feelings to each one.
The issue they keep running into is that color is too dependent on individual experience to be easily or universally categorized into a single system that applies to everybody. Research shows that life experiences, personal preferences, cultural differences, geographic influences and upbringing all have an impact on how people react to color. That’s why no one has ever been able to come up with a one-size-fits-all theory about color that applies to everyone.
Add to this the fact that a single color can have more than one meaning when used in different contexts. Here are some examples of this:
Green is often used by brands that want to associate themselves with environmental friendliness. It’s also used by financial brands to convey strength and fiscal security. Two industries that are often at odds have coopted the same color to express two very different things.
Black is leveraged by companies that want to come across as elegant because people associate it with black tie and evening events. It’s also a stalwart of the sober and serious funeral industry. In this case, black is used to convey both a certain type of happiness and sadness.
Brown is commonly featured by companies that want to be viewed as rugged and earthy. It’s also frequently leveraged by food businesses to convey the smoothness, richness and velvetiness of their chocolate products. In this tactile example, brown can make people feel roughness or smoothness depending on the context.
Without a single set of rules to work from, graphic designers and marketers have to make decisions about color on a one-by-one basis.
How to make smart color choices.
With there being no single right answer for what colors — or combinations of them — are ideal for a brand or marketing effort, context is key. It’s all about the feelings you want to bring out, mood you hope to set and image you want your organization, product or service to project.
The good news is that while the field of color psychology has not been able to create one set of rules about the use of color, the research that’s been done about it provides some guidance that can help you make informed color choices.
Here are some key considerations.
Align your color choices with your brand. Research shows that it’s critical for colors to be thought of by consumers as a good fit for a brand and its offerings. Put simply, does the color fit the message or does it conflict with it? Is it a match or does it make people feel confused?
After you find your story, you can start to identify the colors. What goes harmoniously together. I try to take my color bias out of it. Sometimes it is hard, colors are known to trigger responses on us… but with practice, I’ve learned to put myself in the shoes of the target audience, instead of hearing only the “like/don’t like” voice in my head.
Aislinn Barry, SketchDeck head of digital services
Researchers have found that the specific color may not matter as much as whether shoppers think it’s appropriate. Going back to a previous example, consumers are likely comfortable buying things from an environmentally friendly company that uses green as a primary brand color. It makes sense. They may think twice about purchasing them from a company that has a toxic yellow colored logo. It just seems wrong.
The bottom line: When choosing company colors, take time to ask your consumers, “Is this color right for what I’m selling? Or does it make you feel uncomfortable or unsure?
Make sure your colors have the right personality. Interest in a brand is based on how it’s perceived by consumers. Much like dating, the chance of getting to a sales second base, or making a home run, is dependent on how prospective buyers view a brand’s personality.
Despite individual differences, some colors align with certain traits within a large segment of the population. Again, referring back to a previous example, brown is often thought of as a surrogate for smooth chocolate texture. If you choose brown as a primary color for a candy bar brand, it’s likely that you’ll attract interest in it from chocoholics. If you’re selling broccoli, a brown bag or wrapper could turn grocery shoppers off. Fresh springy green may be more aligned with the vegetable’s personality.
Bottom line: Before developing a brand or marketing effort, ask yourself, “What do I want its personality to be, and how can I use color to express it?” Once you have an answer, check that the people in your target market like the personality you’ve chosen and the colors you plan to use to express it.
Important note: Many brands that want to be viewed as rebellious or counter cultural use colors that many find offensive or non-sensical. This is okay, as long as people in their target market “get it” and respond favorably to it.
The people in your target market must find your color choices appealing. Men and women, people of varying ages, individuals living in different geographic areas and those from varying cultures don’t respond to color in the same ways. They all find different colors attractive for personal reasons.
Some recent research provides an example of this. It proved some things most people have suspected for a long time. The study found men generally prefer bold, strong colors and women like lighter, softer ones. In addition, men respond better to shades (colors with black added), while women prefer tints (colors with white blended into them).
Bottom line: No brand wants to be viewed as sexist or playing to racial or social stereotypes. Still, it makes sense to be sensitive to the color preferences of the people in your target audience. The only way to know for sure is to do some real world color testing. A good branding or design agency can help you with this.
Color should differentiate your brand. One of the issues with color psychology is that it has left many brands looking a lot alike. Honestly, can you tell one green environmentally friendly brand from another?
The added layer on top of all that we’ve already laid out is to select colors that differentiate your brand from others in your competitive set.
That’s were secondary colors can play an important role. It’s why so many of those sustainable companies use fresh tones like teal, lime and sunny yellow as accents to the ubiquitous green. It helps them differentiate themselves on shelves full of a whole lot of sameness. Recent studies have found that consumers find contrasting color combinations both attractive and memorable. This has helped companies that want to use common hues like greens and blues as their primary marketing colors to still stand out.
Another way to differentiate yourself is to pair your brand colors with interesting typefaces, a dynamic logo or bold graphics.
In the end…
While there are no absolute rules for identifying the perfect colors for your organization, there are plenty of guiding principals that can help you make your brand and marketing efforts stand out in a way that people in your target market will find attractive and compel them to take action.
Would you like to discuss you brand colors with a pro? Just start a chat and we’ll connect you with a friendly expert who can help you out.