A brief guide to colour theory
Colour plays a major role in any brand’s visual identity. Colour can set the mood, attract attention and spark emotions. Whether designing something for yourself or a client, your choice of colour will hugely impact how the brand is perceived by the public.
With colour affecting people in a variety of ways, it is important to carefully consider colour palettes during the branding process. In this article, we’ll take a look at the basics of colour theory, colour association and the effect it has on the human brain. What we will quickly discover is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to colour. What is undeniable, however, is colour’s emotional impact, which can act as an interesting starting point for conversations around colour when designing your brand.
What is colour theory?
Choosing colour can be both scientific and highly subjective. In its simplest terms, colour theory helps us to understand which colours go well together – or not – and the kind of effect this may have on your overall design.
The origins of colour theory begin with the colour wheel.
The colour wheel
The relationship between colours has been explored for many centuries. In order to create some kind of visible relationship between colours, one of the first notable colour wheels was created in the 17th century by Sir Isaac Newton.
The colour wheel consists of three primary colours:
Three secondary colours (colours created when primary colours are mixed):
And six tertiary colours (colours made from primary and secondary colours):
Drawing a line through the centre of the wheel separates the warm colours (reds, oranges, yellows) from the cool colours (blues, greens, purples). It allows you to quickly see which colours compliment each other.
Incorporating colour models into brand design
The colour wheel acts at the starting point for choosing colour harmonies. These can be either visually appealing or strikingly contrasting combinations of colours that provoke a different response.
Whilst this all sounds a little abstract, in practice it is choosing a colour palette – often just one or two colours – that will deliver the most impact and build brand awareness. Analogous colours – those that are next to each other on the colour wheel – may often be perceived as the most pleasing to look at, however, research has shown that triadic colours – those that are more boldly contrasting with each other – are more memorable.
Understanding the science behind colours and gaining an insight into what colours ‘go’ with each other or not is just the starting point. What follows is the varying emotional responses to colour and the effect they will have on building your brand.
Why should you care about colour theory?
Understanding colour theory will make a huge difference. Appreciating the effect of colour on your target audience will help you stand out. A poor choice in colour may result in poor sales.
“Research provided by Colorcom showed that it takes only 90 seconds for people to make a subconscious judgment about a product and between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on color alone.”
Imagine your customer walking along the crowded supermarket aisle. Their eye is caught by colour almost instantaneously, and brand recognition is sparked by the familiar colours of big brands. In such instances, colour plays even more of an important role than text, as a consumer is reacting to the familiar colours of brands that they know and trust.
Studies confirm that our brains do in fact prefer immediately recognisable brands. A study by Christine Born, M.D., radiologist at University Hospital in Munich, Germany revealed that “strong brands activate certain areas of the brain independent of product categories.” This means that a brand instinctively elicits a reaction in our brains, highlighting just how important colour is when creating a brand identity.
Successful uses of colour in branding
Colours have been used to enormous success in branding for many years. Some brands are so well-known for their colours that they have become even more iconic than the product or service themselves.
Did you know that Kodak was the first company to trademark a signature colour in the 1935 by adopting red and yellow as its trade dress colours? Often with a long-standing association with a particular colour, established brands recognise the importance of consistently using their colours – and register them for individual use.
The following examples show just how well many companies achieve this:
Purple has often been associated with a sumptuousness that implies richness or wealth. It is a fabulous colour to represent a decadent product and has been successfully used by the Cadbury’s brand for over 100 years.
The synonymous purple shade of Cadbury’s was patented by the company in 1915. Pantone 2685C is officially Cadbury Purple and is recognised the world over. The company is now in a position where they do not even have to mention their name – remember the gorilla playing the drums? – because of their instantly identifiable colour.
Red is a passionate, often confronting colour, which can be hard to incorporate into a brand’s colour scheme. However, one company that has dominated in their use of this colour is Coca-Cola.
This bold colour is so influential the company are also at a stage where they do not need to use their name on all of their packaging and advertising. They have experimented with removing their name from the logo and leaving the simple white flair across the centre.
The EasyJet orange is an undeniable force to be reckoned with in the world of low cost airlines. The colour daubs every customer touch point, from the uniforms, signage, tray tables to the planes themselves. The colour is there for every part of the customer’s journey and even greets them at the car rental or hotel check in desk as the company have expanded into these new markets.
The psychology of colour
It’s not hard to see how powerful a great colour (or combination of colours) can be. Therefore, the pressure is on to make the right decisions on behalf of your company, client, and most importantly, the customer.
But how can you approach discussions about colour when so much of it hinges on a gut reaction?
In an article by Creative Blog, Karen Haller, a leading authority in the field of applied colour psychology argues that, “many people get colour psychology, colour symbolism, and their personal colour association all mixed up together, which is why it’s easy to dismiss colour as being subjective”.
Around the table, discussions about branding and the use of colour can quickly descend into emotive language:
Colour symbolism refers to the use of colour in culture and the conscious associations we therefore make.
In the UK or the US, for example, colours may commonly evoke the following kinds of meaning:
- Blue: calm, stable, trust, smart
- Red: passion, immediacy, anger, hunger
- Green: soothing, natural, envy, balance
- Yellow: cheer, attention, fresh, energy
- Orange: happiness, attraction, wealth, thirst
- Pink: caring, love, emotional, sensitive
- Purple: luxury, royal, arrogant, sadness
- Black: strength, power, elegance, bold
- White: purity, cleanliness, and neutrality.
Cultural differences can compound those effects. A hue that’s happy and uplifting in one country can be seen as depressing in another:
“In some countries, yellow has very different connotations. In Egypt, for example, yellow is for mourning. In Japan, it represents courage and in India it’s a color for merchants.”
Being mindful of the cultural symbolism associated with certain colours can help you convey the right message for your brand. For example, a tech company may seek to imbue an innovative, dependable feel to their branding, whereas a health food shop would want to use colours that keep fresh, natural and healthy elements as their focus.
Personal colour association
Personal association relates to the memories or experiences of an individual that is provoked by a particular colour. They can remind us of a place, a time of year, or our favourite traditions, which can shape the way we feel.
This term refers to people associating colour with their own meaning to influence their behaviour and decision making. Different colours provoke a different reaction in people, which can be incredibly powerful in marketing. For example, red is often associated with impulse and therefore a common colour to be found in fast food outlets or call-to-action buttons on a website urging you to purchase.
Discussing colour in the branding process
Whilst the colour wheel is a great starting point to introduce the topic of colour within your company or with an external client, the above concepts show us that choosing a colour palette is an important and lengthy process.
It’s clear to see that people will bring very different opinions to the table – and they may not even be able to articulate why they have an instinctive reaction to a particular colour. The most crucial thing to remember is the context in which you are working. Remember that it’s the feeling, mood, and image that your brand or product creates that matters, and this should be the ultimate outcome of your conversations about colour.
It may be necessary to test out colours on your target audience to gauge their reaction – and go back to the drawing board if needs be.
If you’re struggling, take a look at our article with ideas on how to overcome problems with your branding.
Questions to ask that explore the use of colour in branding
Colour theory is a big topic, with many practical elements that need to be professionally considered to make sure a brand’s colour strategy is effective. Colours shouldn’t be chosen hastily, as a rush job now will be regretted further down the line as first impressions of your brand become entrenched with a certain colour.
As we have seen, people’s reactions to colours are inherently instinctive and often deeply personal, so there may be occasions around the table where you have to humbly agree to disagree. Fortunately, this creative process can be a lot of fun, so don’t forget to enjoy yourselves!
When working with clients during the branding process, we start off the discussion about colour by asking:
- What does the brand want to stand for? (We’ve explored this topic in greater length in a blog post about why your brand is more than a logo)
- Who is the consumer?
- How can colour help you tell your story?
- How will the brand journey deliver that experience to the consumer?
- Are there any cultural symbolisms related to your chosen colours?
We recently had a big debate on the colour pink for a women’s project and gathered lots of research ‘for’ and ‘against’…watch this space for our findings and results on ‘Reclaiming or reinstating stereotype?’
Have you given any thought to these questions in relation to colours within your own business?
If you are a designer, what questions do you use to kick start the conversations around colour with your clients?
We understand that colour can present one of the biggest challenges in the design process, and this article has merely scratched the surface of what can be discussed. If you have any creative thoughts or concerns, we’re happy to answer any questions you may have about colour theory.
Show us your true colours! We’d love to hear from you – so drop us an email today and let’s get colourful.
Want more like this? Sign up to receive more conversations around branding and design in Sail’s monthly newsletter.