The Psychology of Color

The Psychology of Color

Paul Rose Jr Content Marketing, Get Strategic, Growth Marketing, Small Business Marketing, Social Media Leave a Comment

Have you ever wondered why so many websites have some sort of blue color scheme?

Granted, some of it is bound to be random, or just because blue is that person’s favorite color. But it’s more likely that, even if they don’t realize it, the designers or the companies they’re working for choose blue because psychologically it implies creativity, calmness, safety, intelligence, trust and dependability.

On the other hand, you don’t see that many red-themed websites, because along with energy and passion, most people unconsciously see red, as well, “seeing red.” In other words, they see aggression, anger, dominance and failure. Red attracts attention and can cause your heart rate to accelerate – great when picking out a power tie or sexy lingerie – not so great when you’re driving a sports car or trying to present yourself as a reputable business.

A Quick Caveat

Before we dive too deeply into the subject of Color Psychology, remember that it is sometimes subjective. A lot of articles have been written about how color psychology is about as real as palm reading or crystal balls and that it is largely based on anecdotal evidence at best.

While that was true even just 10 years ago, great strides have been made in actual scientific research into colors and their effects on the brain with various variables and conditions taken into account. Some of the research proved prevailing theories of color psychology right and some of it has proven them wrong.

So for this post, I’m going to hew as close as possible to the facts that we do know, while admitting that we are still learning. Sound fair?

The Broad Strokes

Fair warning – this is going to be the most subjective part of this post, because I’m going to start with the general impression or feeling that most people get from our favorite primary and secondary colors.

You probably remember from elementary school that all colors are made up of the three primary colors – Blue, Red & Yellow. Outside of school, though, we tend to talk more in terms of Photoshop color codes, which are defined by either RGB (red-green-blue) or, more often for print, in CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black)

Generally, you’ll find primary colors make a good solid base from which to kick off your marketing design, so let’s look at what they mean to our subconscious.

The Color Red

Red is easily the most attention getting of the primary colors. As I noted earlier, it reflects love and affection, along with friendliness and power. But red is also an indicator of aggression (too much power), danger, terror and fear. There’s a reason it’s used for stoplights, fire trucks and police car lights. Red can be energizing, but should be used sparingly.

The Color Yellow

Yellow is almost universally viewed as a positive color. When you want to express happiness, optimism, cheerfulness or joy, yellow is your go-to. That’s one of the reasons happy faces have typically been yellow long before they were emojis. Yellow is the easiest color to see, and the first color infants respond to. But use it too much and it starts reminding people of criticism and disease. So like red, use it sparingly in most instances.

The Color Blue

Blue signifies trust, dependability, responsibility, intellectualism. It’s one of the most liked colors across the globe and is the most used color for medical facilities. While red stimulates the physical, the instinct, or the ID, blue typically stimulates the mind or the super-ego part of our brains. Blue is great for building relationships, but just like the other primary colors, too much blue flips the script, coming off as cold, distant and unfriendly. But blue can more be safely used in larger quantities than red or yellow before backfiring.

Another interesting note – while blue is one of the last colors to be seen, it is the most visible to the most people, including those who suffer from colorblindness. In fact, the prevalent blue color in the Facebook platform was not a psychological decision, but rather a practical one – since Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colorblind – blue is the color he sees best.

Things get a little more muddied when we move into secondary and tertiary colors, pun intended. Just like the colors themselves are made up of a mixture of primary colors, our response to them tends to relate to their ‘parent’ colors.

The Color Green

Green is generally seen as a color that represents balance and harmony – and yes, that happened long before it became associated with the all-natural and organic movements. Green has the cheerfulness of yellow mixed with the responsibility of blue, striking a balance. Health, rest, reduced stress, growth and peace are all attributed to green.

The Color Orange

Orange takes the dynamic and powerful feel of red and blends it with the friendliness and positive outlook of yellow. Orange is often a motivator, which is why you see it on many website’s call to action buttons. It can also indicate a physical comfort – warmth, shelter, and food, including stimulating your appetite.

The Color Purple

Purple is traditionally the color of royalty and still holds that unconscious distinction. It also indicates creativity and imagination. Purple mixes the passionate energy of red with the intellectual bent of blue, resulting in a feeling of mystery and magic.

The Color Pink

Pink shares some of red’s feeling, but mutes the intensity, making it great for representing compassion, nurturing, and sensitivity. It can symbolize hope (especially in ribbon form) as well as romance.

The Color Brown

Brown tends to be viewed as rather boring, although it does give the impression of stability, structure and protection. Basically, it’s safe – which works best as an alternative to black. But it’s not the best marketing color.

The Color Black

Black shows sophistication, seriousness, independence and reservation. While we think of good and evil in black and white, design-wise, that is not a factor. Although the high contrast black provides makes it more readable and useful either as text, or as the counter to lighter colored text.

The Color White

White symbolizes purity, innocence and cleanliness. Honestly, white is best used for marketing as a simple background, or as contrast on darker colors to make things more readable. It’s definitely not a color you want to overuse.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re wondering, okay, great, we have all these myriad definitions and interpretations, but how can I utilize them? For marketing, sales, website design, logo? How do I pull it all together?

The Finer Details

So let’s drill down and look at what this all means for our marketing efforts.

First off, I’m going to slip this little reminder in here – you need to do the strategic work of determining who your ideal customer is. In fact, when you begin attempting to apply color psychology, that’s when the truly intricate, sometimes mundane details about your customer demographic become the most important.

Remember, the point of color psychology is not to create a website or marketing materials that you like to look at, or look cool or hip – unless that’s something your ideal customer is looking for.

Color psychology should be applied and balanced between what represents your company’s ideals best and what lights your customers up when they see it.

So I’m going to get into color selection, complementary and analogous colors and how best to balance look with functionality and utilization. But it’s just an exercise in futility if you’re just throwing paint on a canvas and hoping it works out. It’s fine for Jackson Pollock, but we’re trying to sell something here.

The First Impression

No matter what you’re working on, you need to start with the main color that is the backdrop on which everything else is. As I mentioned earlier, primary colors work best as a main color. But specifically blue, black or white should almost always be your go-to for the solid base. Brown is another good alternative.

A Word About Contrast

If you can afford to work with a professional designer on your marketing materials or website, this will likely become a point of contention. Designers like to make things pretty and stylish and ‘in vogue.’ Which is all well and good, but it’s almost certainly not always what’s best for what you need. They’re working for you, so they will usually give you what you ask for, but only if you know to ask.

Low contrast, muted colors, tone on tone and some pastels look great on paper or online unless you’re trying to read something. Here’s the thing you need to know – after applying your strategic work, the second most important thing you need to get from your marketing is readability. High contrast – black on white, dark on light, or vice versa, is great. It’s not as pretty, but if your clients or prospective customers can’t read your copy, it doesn’t matter how direct and perfect and powerful it is.

Always utilize high contrast. Trust me. The same goes if you’re designing everything yourself. You just don’t have to argue with “the artiste!”

Another side note – don’t go all hog wild on the color schemes you’re deciding on. Again, this is where the strategic work comes in handy. Most people get distracted by seeing more than 2-3 colors in your design. It also tends to look muddy and confusing to them, especially when they’re looking at your website or pdf on their smart phones. Do yourself a favor and pick no more than 4 colors max for any marketing materials you’re preparing. How do you pick the right ones?

Complementary Colors

If you scroll back up and look at the graphic at the top of this page, you’ll see that the hand is holding a piece of stiff paper called a color wheel. Color wheels help designers, painters, even models and movie wardrobe people to determine what looks best together.

Interestingly enough, the colors opposite from each other on the color wheel are considered “Complementary.” For example, I have very blue to hazel eyes. I often wear blue because it looks good on me and brings out my eyes. However, orange, blue’s complimentary color does almost as good a job. Or I know if I have a blue shirt on, I can wear a muted orange tie, and the two won’t clash, but will look stylish.

The same goes for your website, brochures, etc. Using complementary colors is the easiest way to get something to stand out. If you click here, you can check out the color wheel I use when I’m working on graphics. It comes from a furniture website, but I like it because it shows not just the colors, but gradations you can play with.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are those that are to the left and right of your selected color on the color wheel. They’re related to the main color you’ve chosen. Kind of like your own family, there is a resemblance between them that allows the eye to pass over them without being jarring. So blue-green and blue-violet are direct analogues to my blue. And even stepping wider, green and violet work as well.

Splitting the Difference

An especially clever way to use analogous colors is to combine them with complimentary colors. So instead of an orange tie with my blue shirt, I can add a red tie and a yellow pocket square. It isn’t quite as striking as the orange on blue, but it still makes an exciting visual for the eye – and can lead your prospective client’s eyes down the page effectively.

The Silver Lining

There’s a lot more I could go into – like the fact that women see more colors than men and can tell slight variations in color better than their male counterparts. Maybe that’s why they have so many names for them?

I don’t want to overwhelm you and we’ve already gone through a considerable amount of information for you to try and sift through. The good news is once you’ve analyzed and targeted your ideal customer, you can get the best color scheme and then set it aside. Until you start the next business, of course.

One final word about colors and designs – just like with your social media accounts, you want consistency. Make everything match to reinforce your branding and make it easy to stand out. You don’t have the time or money to spend giving your marketing a Geico-like approach, running 5 or 6 different campaigns at the same time, with low consumer recognition for any of them. You need to stand out in a busy world, and to do that, consistency of brand is key.

That also means if you change your website, marketing materials or logo based on color psychology, you need to go back and adjust your social media accounts as well too.

But don’t worry, we won’t tell on you if you end up starting with Blue. It is the most popular color. Just make your blue stand out.

About the Author

Paul Rose Jr. started his career as a TV journalist, writing and producing the highest-rated weekend newscast in Southwest Florida. In the 25 years since, he’s written in just about every medium and format available: radio, TV, print and online journalism, commercial and promo copy, op ed articles, press releases, website copy & blog posts. Story is his passion and it’s at the heart of all he writes. All good writing involves story – it connects with people and opens their mind and heart to hear what you have to say. Paul is a voracious reader, and draws from a wide-range of research and life experience when writing. He is currently in Los Angeles, CA, and in addition to the work he does for Grow the Dream, he is hard at work developing screenplays and teleplays.

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