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The Psychology of Color

The Psychology of Color

Color affects how we feel and behave more than people realize. Consider some of the following interesting nuances about color:

  • Weightlifters can lift more weight in a room where the walls are painted in red
  • People sitting in a room with blue walls feel colder than people in the same room (at the same temperature) when the walls are painted in a “warmer” color (like orange)
  • Individuals are more likely to forget something presented in black and white than in color
  • Warmer colors appear closer while cooler colors appear farther away—a phenomenon 3D glasses use to amplify the perception of depth
  • Women see more shades of red than men because the gene responsible for perceiving red is on the X-chromosome, and women have two
  • There is a shade of pink (Baker-Miller Pink) that is known in criminal justice to calm down aggressive and violent people
  • Changing public lighting from yellow-white to bluish has been shown to reduce crime (Glasgow) and suicides (Yokohama)
  • The color yellow (as compared with any other color), in combination with movement, can result in dizziness and nausea, which is why it is not a color commonly used on the interior of public transportation (i.e., planes, trains, busses)
  • People who wear black are perceived as more authoritative and powerful
  • Introverts and extroverts are likely to choose different colors—blue and red respectively

 

Studies demonstrate that up to 90% of first impressions of a communication are based on color. Accordingly, because color is one of the first elements customers will perceive about your marketing materials, it is important to choose color carefully in order to instill the perceptions you desire while avoiding undesirable ones. Each hue evokes a specific emotional response from your audience, unconsciously shaping how that consumer perceives your brand. When it comes to product development, marketing and branding, this positive brand perception can influence consumers’ purchasing decisions and ultimately increase sales.

Warm colors
Warm colors include reds, oranges and yellows, and are generally energizing, passionate, and positive. We associate warm colors with more energetic elements of nature: fire, sunsets and autumn leaves. When used exclusively, warm tones can become overwhelming, so in order to counteract this effect, warm tones can be used as accent colors while pulling in the use of cooler tones to add balance to a composition.

Cool colors
On the other side of the spectrum, cool colors are often more subdued than warm colors, and tend to be calming. We universally associate cool colors with the sky, water, and nighttime. Cool hues include blues, greens and purples, and are often integrated into branding elements as a dominant or key accent color.

Neutral colors
Neutral colors, often used in combination with a dominant color and brighter accents, commonly serve as the backdrop in design, or act to unify diverse color palettes. Used on their own, however, they can create an understated, sophisticated palette. Neutral tones include black, white, grays, browns and beiges.

How to choose colors for your brand or campaign
The first step is to think about the mood and message you want to convey. Who is your target audience, and what needs are you fulfilling with your product or service? A full-service branding agency will conduct extensive research to uncover insights and develop a strategic plan to reach your audience effectively, then build communications that will identify and trigger your desired brand perceptions. Color is a large part of developing a new or updated brand, and since each color family has its own emotional meanings and psychological associations, it’s useful to be aware of them—this way, your branding team can pick a palette of colors that align with your brand’s core message.

Below, we provide psycho-sensory brand-building guidance through color choice as you seek to optimize the perceptual response to your communications among your brand’s target audience.

It is important to note that in this context, the above generalities from the U.S. notwithstanding, the meaning of color varies quite a bit between individuals, and again across countries and cultures. Something as simple as changing the exact hue or saturation of a color can evoke a completely different feeling. Cultural differences can compound those effects, where a hue that’s uplifting in one country is depressing in another. For more information on what colors mean internationally, please see our post on that topic here.

The received view of color also varies by the emotional state of the perceiver as well as the social and environmental context within which a given hue is seen.

Adjusting the strength and saturation
To make a color feel more or less powerful, the value—the amount of darkness or lightness in a color—can be adjusted.

Across all color families, the darker a color is, the more power it conveys. As an example, think of a glass of red wine: dark, rich and full. Now think of a glass of chilled rosé wine–which glass makes you think of a dark and stormy night in front of a fireplace? Which glass would you be holding while sitting at an outside café on a pleasant summer’s day? The weather in these scenarios can be symbolized by the color of the wine in each setting, darker = more power.

Similarly, adjusting a color to make it more or less saturated will change its intensity, thereby adjusting its level of energy.

Fully saturated colors are vivid and rich because they have no gray in them, while less saturated colors have gray undertones, making them more muted and soft. Colors with a higher level of saturation can convey excitement and even a wild mood.

Conclusion
It’s important to remember that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to color. Color trends are always changing, and inspiration can and should come from a number of different sources: fashion, architecture, animation, films, even music! But having a good understanding of the psychological meaning of color is a great basis for developing communications that send the exact message you want to give your target audience.

Additional resources
Art Therapy: Color Meanings & Symbolism
Smashing Magazine: Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color

Pamela Golafshar
pgolafshar@six-degrees.com

As a passionate graphic designer with over 20 years of professional experience and nearly as much experience living abroad, Pam brings a special blend of creative skills and global perspective to her work. She started her career in music, specifically in classical piano, which imbued her with great organizational focus and discipline. Today, she supports the graphic design needs of our clients, ranging from start-ups to Global 1000 companies in both B2B and B2C. Her skills include branding and identity, app/icon design, marketing collateral, advertising, packaging, and more. But just because her focus is on design, ‘ware your words, for she is also a self-described “grammar nerd”!

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