Colour theory: an essential guide to colour psychology

Creating a killer colour palette can bring a brand to life. Colour plays a crucial role in how a brand is perceived, can increase brand recognition by up to 80%, attract the right customers and even persuade people to buy your products. But developing a colour scheme can be one of the most challenging and confusing steps to creating your brand identity. How many colours should you choose? How to combine them? Where to even start?

If this scenario sounds familiar don’t worry, here is step 1 to get you on the right colour track…

 
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A good place to start in making the right colour choice for your brand is to first understand what colours mean and how they will be perceived by your target audience. Here is a brief run down of colour psychology....

RED (a primary colour)

Ranging from bright reds to maroons, it's an emotionally intense and a highly visible colour, often used to suggest urgency and grab the viewer’s attention (think retail SALE and danger signs). Studies have shown red is also able to stimulate appetite and evoke a physical reaction such as raising a person's blood pressure, so it's no surprise red is also associated with passion, desire, and love. Using a 'pure' red can sometimes overpower a colour scheme so try using a shade or tint to soften the impact - unless of course your aim is to great energy and vibrancy then bright is best.

ASSOCIATIONS: energy, passion, love, desire, excitement, power, adventure but can also imply aggression and danger.

BRANDS: Film 4, Coco Cola, You Tube, Pinterest, Virgin Media, Puma, Refinery29

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Orange (a secondary colour)

Less intense than red but still packs a lot of punch; it’s energetic, warm and more friendly. Like yellow, orange is associated with joy, energy, and playfulness. You often find it used in logos to stimulate emotions and appetites (similar to red), it's associated with the fruit of the same name, so connotes health and vitality. In its more muted forms it can be associated with the earth and the autumn season and is viewed as an 'organic' colour.

ASSOCIATIONS: friendliness, warmth, approachability, energy, playfulness, courage, creativity, enthusiasm, lightheartedness, affordability, youth, extravert and motivation.

BRANDS: Penguin, Nickelodeon, Amazon, EasyJet, Superdry, Hermes, Orange Mobile.

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YELLOW (a primary colour)

The colour of sunshine; it’s hard not to have happy thoughts when you think of the colour yellow and is considered a cheerful, hopeful hue. Along with red and orange, it's on the warm side of the colour wheel and warm colours are considered bold, uplifting and energetic. Although proven to catch the eye quicker than any other colour, yellow can be hard to read against a white background so use a darker shade or use it as a colour pop against a darker background such as black or grey which can convey a modern, industrial look.

ASSOCIATIONS: light, optimism, happiness, brightness, joy, positivity, warmth, curiosity, playfulness, caution, cheerfulness, cowardice.

BRANDS: Veuve Clicquot, Timberland, Forever 21, Ferrari, Nikon

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BLUE (a primary colour)

Classed as a 'cool' colour on the colour wheel, generally considered less intense than warm colours. Due to this blue can have a calm and relaxing effect. However the shade of blue can greatly effect the associated meaning, for example, bright cobalt blues are refreshing and more energetic than strong, reliable, dark navy blue, whereas light blue can be refreshing and friendly. Blue is often used by corporations such as banks and IT software as well as social media brands because of associations with reliability and stability. Seldom used for food packaging as studies have shown blue to suppress appetite.

ASSOCIATIONS: patience, security, loyalty, trustworthiness, calm, open, ambitious, content, control, refreshing and friendly.

BRANDS: Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Internet Explorer.

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GREEN (a secondary colour)

An earthy colour that combines cool (blue) and warm (yellow) hues, it takes on calming attributes as well as energetic. Abundant in nature, green can represent new beginnings and growth and is often used in design to show balance and harmony. On the flip side, green can also represent envy or jealousy, as well as a lack of experience in some cultures.

ASSOCIATIONS: freshness, calm, harmony, health, eco-friendliness, healing, money, nature, balance, growth, restore, sanctuary, positivity, generous, clarity and prosperity.

BRANDS: Body Shop, Starbucks, Spotify, Lacoste.

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PURPLE (a secondary colour)

Closely associated with royalty, luxury, and extravagance, it’s a very rare colour in nature, because of this many relate it to creativity and mystery. It is also said to stir up feelings of nostalgia so good for creating a vintage feel. Softer lilac shades can create feelings of romance and spring. 

ASSOCIATIONS: fantasy, mystery, nobility, royalty, and sophistication, luxury, extravagance, unconventional, creativity, wealth.

BRANDS: Cadbury’s, Yahoo, Milka, Prince.

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pink

A feminine, delicate colour that's the sweet side of the colour red; while red represents heat and passion, pink represents romance and charm. Common expressions show positive connotations with the colour pink - to be 'in the pink' means healthy and 'tickled pink' means happy and content. On the negative side, large amounts of pink could create an overly 'feminine' affect that could alienate a masculine audience. 

ASSOCIATIONS: love, respect, feminine, possibilities, nurture, delicate, gratitude, gentleness, innocence, softness, and appreciation, friendship, harmony, inner peace and approachability.

BRANDS: Victoria Secrets, BBC Three, Barbie.

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Brown

A warm neutral colour the most abundant in nature. Because of this it is considered rustic and earthy, helping to bring a feeling of warmth and wholesomeness to a design. Often used as a background for other colours, rather than the dominant colour, it can be a subtle and classy replacement for black. Try using tones of brown - for example beige - to add soft and calming neutral tones to your colour palette.

ASSOCIATIONS: warmth, wholesomeness, earthy, rustic, nature, natural, comfort, strength, credibility, richness.

BRANDS: Hershey's, UPS.

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GREY

Considered a balanced neutral, grey is one of my favourite (non) colours! It's subtle, soft and you can't go far wrong; a light grey can work very well in place of stark white and similarly a dark charcoal can soften the place of harsh black. Often used as a background colour to make other colours 'pop', it can range from a cool slightly 'blue' tinge to a warmer greyish brown 'taupe' colour.

ASSOCIATIONS: intellect, knowledge, wisdom, industrial, sleek, dignified, authority, maturity, reliability.

BRANDS: not often used as a dominant brand colour, well designed logos should be created to work in colour and in grey scale.

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BLACK AND WHITE

Both 'colours' are crucial in design, they are visibly the highest contrast when set together directing communication in a powerful way, 'white space' also plays an integral role in creating a balanced design. Often cast as opposites - goodies are dressed in white whereas baddies are draped in black (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, anyone?) - they most commonly carry good (white) and evil (black) cultural connotations. It's a classic combination that can suggest high fashion but can be very limiting to base your entire colour choice upon, therefore I would suggest adding these as neutral colours to balance out your final palette - unless, that is, you're going for extreme contrast then go for it! They are also a really good base for adding in a high contrast colour pop.

ASSOCIATIONS: Black - power, elegance, authority, strength, secrecy, mystery, luxury, sophistication. White: purity, cleanliness, youth, freshness, peace, innocence.

BRANDS: Chanel, & Other Stories, Whistles, COS.

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So now that you’ve got a good understanding of colour psychology, revisit your brand keywords. Which colours best sum up your products, service or offering? What emotions or reactions do you want the audience to have towards your business? Your colour choice needs to trigger these emotions.

Then research colours - have a look around at photographs, designs and any other creative sources that capture similar tones, ideas and emotions as you would like for your brand image. What similarities are there? What inspiration can you take for your own colour palette? Adobe Colour CC  is a great resource for browsing colour palettes or upload a photograph and use the colour picker to create your own range of hues. Alternatively try using Paletton and ColorExplorer. If you use Chrome as your browser, you can download the Eye Dropper extension, which lets you identify and pull colours straight from the web.

With this knowledge in mind decide on 1-2 dominant colours to start off your palette. Then head over to STEP 2 | COLOUR HARMONY (coming soon).