MAT MARTIN | Colour Meaning, Association and Perception in Brand Development
22 November, 2017, 16:19
I am often asked about colour choices in branding, specifically with regard to colour meaning and psychological perception. It is generally accepted that colours have specific meanings and that these associations can be used to guide us towards effective choices in the creation of logos, palettes and websites.
The reality of this, however, is much less clear. Our perception of colour and the associations we make with certain hues can be a very personal experience. The frustrating truth is that although some trends have been observed, there is no definite map to which we can adhere in order to produce reliable results in colour meaning. The colour red, for instance, may suggest friendship to some people, but can just as easily suggest fear to others.
It is tempting to design using accepted or common ideas about colour and meaning, but we must remember that there is nothing definite, reliable or factual about these observations. In this post I will collate as full a picture as I can of colour meaning as it is usually understood, and at the same time attempt to explore the subjective nature which makes the subject so nuanced.
Colour in Culture and Marketing
Trends in colour association have been researched many times with the intention of building a composite picture of reactions to and associations with various colours: this post attempts to bring some of this information together for reference. It is vital to remember that at best these represent averages across a subject group of limited size and diversity, and from predominantly western cultures. The sources for my work here have been Hallock (2003), Birren (1961), and several insightful articles from blogs and journals, as listed at the end of this post. Secondary information comes principally through Hallock’s work, and includes Boyle (2001), Osgood, May & Miron (1975) and Khouw (date unknown).
There are some important points to bear in mind when considering the collated information below. We must remember that it presents at best a collective average amongst a specific demographic, and certainly should not be considered a reliable truth on which to base marketing decisions alone. These considerations are best noted by quoting some of this post’s sources.
Hallock’s own fieldwork was conducted using
“… results from 232 people from 22 countries. The mean age of this group is 30.34 with the youngest being 15 and the eldest being 81. For the purposes of this study, 6 age groups were established: 1-18, 19-24, 25-35, 36-50, 51-69, and 70 and older. Both sexes were represented in this study. Females accounted for 144 survey results and males accounted for 88. The unequal distribution between the sexes relates to the procedures for presenting the survey to the public.”
Helpscout’s post on the psychology of colour is uncompromising in its insistence that colour is a subjective issue. Gregory Ciotti’s excellent article points out that “the truth is that color is too dependent on personal experiences to be universally translated to specific feelings. There are, however, broader messaging patterns to be found in color perceptions.” In short:
“There are no clear-cut guidelines for choosing your brand’s colours. “It depends” is a frustrating answer, but it’s the truth. However, the context you’re working within is an essential consideration. It’s the feeling, mood, and image that your brand or product creates that matters.”
Hallock makes a similar point, with reference to Britannica’s entry on the subject:
“According to Britannica, the most important aspect of colour in daily life is probably the one that is least defined and most variable. It involves aesthetic and psychological responses to colour and influences art, fashion, commerce, and even physical and emotional sensations.
“It is important to understand that the psychological perception of colour is subjective. Factors like age, mental health, and mood affect the colours we see. People who share distinct personal traits tend to share colour perceptions and preferences (Colour Psychology and Colour Therapy, 176). For example, people with schizophrenia have been reported to have abnormal colour perception and even very young people (who are learning to distinguish colours) usually show a preference for red or orange (Colour Psychology and Colour Therapy, 168). Furthermore, it has even been suggested that specific colours can have a therapeutic effect on physical and mental disabilities.”
We see therefore that statistics can offer us some insight, which can be useful when selecting colours and building palettes, especially if used cautiously. CoSchedule’s colour psychology post, which contains some very useful resources, notes other specific trends from Hallock and Birren:
“[Birren] found that bright light and bright colours promoted “big muscle” activity, while softer and deeper colours promoted mental and visual tasks better. He also discovered that red stimulates our nervous system while blue relaxes it. Red and related colours also caused people to overestimate the passage of time while cooler colours like green and blue were the reverse.”
Finally, as mentioned above, these statistics tend toward a western cultural bias. It is useful to cross-reference any conclusions or observations against some notion of general colour meaning in other contexts too. Some good places to start are this infographic from Information is Beautiful and this chart from ThoughtCo.
Collated Patterns in Colour Meaning
Below, I have collated some charts and notes for the principal primary and secondary colours, along with the same for black, white and gold. The charts offer sliding scales to show each colour’s relationships within certain spectra as follows (from top to bottom) :
- Energy levels (calm to exciting)
- Age (young to old)
- Gender (female to male)
- Typical reaction (mental to physical)
- Time perception (slow to fast)
They also refer to the key words used in Hallock’s study to gauge associative feelings with certain colours, as follows:
The idea is to create a quick visual reference for the process of selecting colours and building palettes for use in branding and design. These basic charts also offer a basis for comparison between and/or more complex mixes of the colours listed.
Each chart gives an example of a “pure colour” along with a selection of shades and tints (see my post on colour theory and palette building). It may be interesting to note too that studies in colour preference which look at gender have shown a male bias for pure (simpler) or shaded (darker) colours and a female bias toward tinted (paler) hues.
Colour Meaning Reference Charts
Red is considered a powerful, dynamic colour that reflects our physical being. We associate it as easily with affection and love as we do with danger, fear, and survival. It is a colour that can effectively portray friendliness and fun, but can also be demanding and show aggression, depending on its tone and context.
Brands which predominantly use red tend to have a powerful presence and demand attention. They rarely communicate any timidity about their character and physique.
It is important when using red to bear in mind the negative reactions with which it can so easily be met.
Being a blend of red and yellow, orange can benefit from a tension between the characteristics of these two colours. At its red end it can lend physicality and energy, whereas its yellow properties infuse it with a sense of friendliness, fun and intellect.
The mix makes orange a strong choice for creating a sense of physical comfort, warmth and shelter. It has also been shown to stimulate appetite.
Orange is also known to be a colour of motivation, and can engender positivity and enthusiasm. It also seems to be a colour highly associated with cheapness in western culture, despite several brands successfully using the colour without appearing to suffer from this association.
Yellow has a bold quality, and often accompanies a statement of joy and optimism.
The wavelength of yellow is particularly long, making it one of the easiest colours to see (although not when used on white/light grounds). It is the first colour infants respond to as colour perception develops in humans. Yellow is often used to lift the spirits, increase confidence or provide inspiration.
However, studies show that in large quantities the colour may generate anxiety and trigger depression, suggesting that injudicious use of yellow in marketing may make us more critical or stimulate fear.
Green is perceived to be a colour of balance and harmony. Reactions to the colour appear to incorporate a balance of both logical and emotional feeling.
Green is one of the most common colours in nature and therefore is often used to reflect life, rest, and peace. It is also a signaller of growth, whether in physical form such as plants or in material form, e.g. income and wealth.
Green is often used alongside ideas of health and rest, and in situations designed to relieve stress. Whilst green does have some negative connotations such as envy, possessiveness and materialism, it is more universally perceived as positive than most other colours.
Blue is recognised as a colour of trust and dependability. It has reliable, responsible, and soothing qualities, and is one of the most-liked (and most used) colours in the world. Blue may well be the most common dominant colour in branding and is often associated with strength and seriousness.
Blue tends to create a more psychological than physical reaction which can allow us to de-stress, calm down, and project an ideal situation.
It also is one of the last colours to be seen by the developing eye, and can be perceived as distant, cold, or unfriendly.
Blue emerges from studies as a clear favourite colour that can bring a sense of calm and trust when building relationships, especially in marketing.
Purple is most commonly associated in Western culture with imagination and spirituality. It combines the power and energy of red with the stability and reliability of blue, offering a balance between the physical and the emotional.
Purple is often used in marketing confectionery, or in association with ideas of luxury, loyalty, courage, mystery, and magic.
Purple seems to be a divisive colour in terms of taste, appealing to a narrower demographic than blue or green, but with positive connotations of sophistication and creativity.
In studies it shows a marked female bias, and does not feature highly in ‘favourite colour’ charts.
Pink is a softer, less intense version of red that is usually used to encourage a sense of compassion and love.
Despite being towards the physical end of the colour spectrum it tends to soothe rather than stimulate, making it a useful colour to pair with feelings of caring, understanding, and nurturing. It is often associated with femininity in western culture. Pink can be used as a cypher for hope, empathy and sensitivity, but can be draining, and even suggest immaturity.
Due to its tempered nature, pink can offer a strong alternative to red in some situations, turning bold and aggressive qualities towards softer physicality.
A complex colour, cool and dark, brown is not particularly visually stimulating. It can however be a strong signaller of structure, security, and protection, and is often used to suggest dependability, friendship, family and solid material goods.
As with green, brown is a very common colour in nature, and so is often used to reflect life, rest, and peace. Whereas green calls to growth in nature, brown speaks to longevity, solidity and stability.
Brown tends to feel serious and down to earth and can in this way be used as an alternative to black. It can however seem reserved, and boring. A brown-based brand palette would not be appropriate to many brands.
Gold has varied cultural significance. Whilst it is often perceived as relating to material wealth and riches, some Asian cultures associate it with ethereal religious subjects such as god and heaven.
Across the world, though, gold does seem consistently linked with some variation of charm, confidence, luxury, and treasure. It also can have an element of friendliness, abundance, and prosperity that is naturally attractive, and a strong message of exclusivity which is desirable in some markets.
As a colour it is inextricably linked to the precious metal and can just as easily engender feelings of elitism, disparity, pride and self-righteousness.
Black is a color often associated in marketing with sophistication, seriousness, control, and independence. In wider culture it is often also associated with evil, mystery, depression, and death.
Black can have a serious, reserved tone, in particular when considered as an expression of a lack of colour, or when its contractive nature is considered. Black brands often have a personality which exudes confidence but remains hidden, in control, and separate from others.
In large quantities black can feel engulfing and create a sense of dread or despair in some.
It is a clear choice for high contrast and easy legibility, and a popular one for luxury brands.
White has clear connotations of completeness and purity, making it a common choice for images of openness, neutrality, cleanliness, and peace. It is often associated with spiritual ideas of perfection and beauty and thus can suggest a godly or angelic quality.
White is also used to represent new beginnings, providing a blank slate, and providing a platform for new ideas. White light is made up of equal amounts of coloured light, lending it the symbolism of equality, inclusion, totality and transcendence.
White can be a strong choice when expressing simplicity, purity, newness and creativity.
Applying the Effects of your Colour Choices
Such observations about colour meaning, no matter how broad, may help in the selection of colours for a brand identity. These can then be developed for use in logos and to create palettes for print and web design.
Of course, deciding that you want to take advantage of the qualities exhibited by a specific colour is just the start. After all, “blue” is a very broad definition when you consider the infinite number of blues in the spectrum, each subtly different from the last. For instance, a blue which tends more towards green (turquoise) will display some of the qualities we tend to associate with green within it’s predominantly blue personality. Just as we can change the flavour of a dish by using different quantities of the ingredients which make it up, we can affect the colour we have chosen by inflecting it with notes from another.
It can be interesting to overlay the above charts to see where they converge and where they pull in opposite directions for this reason. If blue is the clear choice for your brand, but you feel it is just a note too cool, try adding a little red – you needn’t go as far as purple to inject a little energy and warmth into the tone you are using.
Complex colours can be trickier to rely on for meaning, and tend to have a more subtle effect than primary colours. In some cases it may prove more effective or appropriate to balance multiple bold colours to create relationships instead of creating complex mixes. The decision will depend very much on the wider personality of your brand, and the result will be greatly affected by the detail in application of colour choices.
My post on colour theory and palette building contains more information on variations in hue, tint and shade as well as the way colours are often used together.
Testing Colour Choices
There is no substitute for testing your colours and palettes. The more informed your decision making is, the more effective your choices – and crucially, your use of the colour(s) – is likely to be, but it’s very easy to forget that even an informed decision about something as subjective as colour theory is essentially a guess at the reaction you’ll get from your client base.
The only way of confirming that your choices are having the desired effect is to pay attention to the way people are reacting to them. Sometimes we can forget that design decisions need not be permanent. If something doesn’t work then the sensible thing to do is change it, and the more information you have at your disposal the more deliberate your changes will be.
Head back over to the colour psychology post at CoSchedule’s blog. They discuss this very aspect of practical colour use in a brief look at their own palette, and refer to this more in-depth example from HubSpot, too. Their A/B test on button colour for a specific project led to very clear results in favour of red over green, on an otherwise green page. The end of their article offers a reminder of the importance of context. Their experiment was about the performance of specific buttons in a specific location,
… therefore, do not go out and blindly switch your green buttons to red without testing first. You should test colors on your page and with your audience to see what happens. You might find something interesting in your data that we don’t have in ours.
The repeated lesson here seems to be quite clearly that there is no right answer or short cut where colour choice is concerned. The information offered by studies and experience can give us somewhere from which to begin, provided we are reasonably confident that our audience demographic will match closely enough the cross section of subjects used to create the data on which we are leaning.
The reality of the situation is that no one client will experience the exact feeling or message we wish to convey with colour choice. A composite picture of brand perception from a number of clients (the higher, the more accurate) will be much more likely to reflect the effect of such approaches. It is at this scale the we can expect to see correlation between the colour theory and demographic research above and the result of our own work.
Finally, we should remember that colour alone is only part of our overall brand picture, even if considered in strictly visual terms. Helpscout’s article puts it very neatly:
When it comes to picking the “right” color, research has found that predicting consumer reaction to color appropriateness is far more important than the individual color itself. If Harley owners buy the product in order to feel rugged, colors that work best will play to that emotion.
Type, style, layout, imagery, writing style and delivery work in conjunction with one another to create an overall brand identity (see Kapferer for a map of this). The way in which brand personality is communicated is subtle and nuanced, and multi-faceted.
Allow the information in this post to inform your decisions, but don’t let it override your instinct or the evidence you can see in the reactions of your clients.