Colors are powerful. Studies suggest that people make a subconscious judgment about a product within 90 seconds of initial viewing. Up to 90% of that assessment is based on color alone. This is why if you want to succeed, color matters.
Color accomplishes many key design tasks. It can:
Direct: When we scan an image or web page, color makes it easier to visually follow a path, speeding up the process for a consumer to make a purchasing decision.
Emphasize: Our eyes are attracted to bright and high-contrast colors, allowing designers to use color for emphasis and hierarchy.
Structure: Color is often used in technical documentation and textbooks to convey relationships and distinctions between information.
Simple enough, right? Not quite. Color also has a more mischievous side, toying with our perception. Studying how color behaves is essential for understanding an audience’s response to your design. But most often, color misbehaves, as the following exercises demonstrate:
What if we told you that square A and square B in the image below are the same color? Block out the squares in between and see for yourself.
Figure 1: Source: Edward H. Adelson
Even after learning that the two squares are the same color, your brain continues to perceive square A as much darker than square B, compensating for the cylindrical object’s shadow and warping the perceived shade. Now take a look at Figure 2. How many colors do you see?
Figure 2: Source: Brain Den
What if we told you that the image contains only two colors: pink and green?
Once again, your brain doesn’t want to believe it, but it’s true. Some of the pink squares are spaced out amongst blank squares and others are placed directly next to the green, making the color appear red.
What’s going on?
Each of your eyes has six to seven million cones, which measure color in different wavelengths. Our brain compares colors by measuring the differences in wavelengths. When certain colors are combined, the brain can’t process the data from the cones correctly and what we think we see isn’t always reality.
These optical illusions demonstrate a key principle of color theory, a term used to describe the collection of rules and guidelines regarding the use of color in art and design: surrounding colors trick the human eye into an incorrect interpretation of color.The formal name for this theory is Simultaneous Contrast, which refers to the way in which two different colors affect each other. When two colors are placed side by side, each one influences how we perceive the tone and hue of the other. This information can help designers choose palettes that appeal to consumers. With the theory of simultaneous contrast in mind, let’s see if you can analyze the following color combinations and make informed design choices:
Figure 3: Source: Amanda Murphy
It comes as no surprise that the shade of green in the center squares appears different in each box, simply by changing the background on which it is placed.
Let’s focus on the bottom two squares, which depict analogous palettes, both of the boxes being shades of green.
Do you prefer the left one? We do, too.
The bottom left square makes use of contrast, and avoids the neon green which can cause strain if you stare for too long. (In fact, this shade of bright green is a common culprit in the article, Color Combinations from Hell – Death Sentence for Your Designs.) The harmonious hue combination implemented by the bottom left square on the other hand, tends to create a peaceful, quiet feeling. In visual experiences, harmony is a combination that results in a visual effect that is pleasing to the eye. It engages the audience and creates an inner sense of order – a balance in the visual experience.Disrupting a harmonious palette by incorporating another color can have an impact, creating a bolder effect. The top two squares make use of two hues from different palettes. Blue and green are complementary colors, but we prefer the balance of the top left square, do you agree? The contrast of the green and the darker shade of blue adds depth, creating, you guessed it, harmony. Sometimes, designers even use colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel, for instance purple and yellow:
The bold contrast employed by Hallmark makes for an eye-catching logo. The purple and golden yellow also reinforce the symbolism of royalty denoted by the crown, which brings us into the importance of color symbolism. The colors a brand chooses not only affect the perception of each shade in comparison to the others used, but affects the interpretation of the brand’s identity and values through the associations between color and meaning.
How do you leverage this color persuasion?
The colors used in a logo or website visually communicate the essence of a business or organization, so it’s imperative that they align with your core identity. Every time a consumer interacts with a brand, an opportunity exists for that particular company to influence their audiences’ perceptions. It is up to the design team to choose what designs and which colors will convince a consumer to make a purchase, which is why creatives must fully understand and draw from extensive research in color psychology to tap into branding techniques and better connect with their market. Since this psychology is something we take seriously when designing for brands, we’ve rebranded companies that have successfully established a stronger brand-consumer relationship and increased profits. Your brand can do the same, keeping these core aspects in mind:
Color is not just visual – it enhances how we feel, eliciting both cultural and psychological associations that are symbolic of ideas, concepts and feelings.
We’ve seen how color combinations can warp our perception and either create harmony or even stress. But color can have even deeper psychological effects. Color Theory taps into our primal, subconscious psychological and physiological response to color. Have you ever noticed that food apps are often red? Food is a primal urge, and in turn, red is a primal color. It’s the color of warmth, fire, and blood. Red has been proven to increase the pulse, raise blood pressure, and increase appetite.
Now, call to mind some logos for your healthcare providers or local hospital. We bet they’re blue. These brands want to establish a calming effect, but most importantly, trust. But why does blue indicate trust? It’s a universally liked color because it’s universally experienced as the shade of the sky on a sunny day as well as the sweeping, constant ocean. It’s a message of stability. For this reason, Entrepreneur explains that the color blue is also popular with financial institutions, conveying fiscal responsibility.
Invest in market research first
Context plays an integral role in color symbolism, meaning that one color can have positive or negative connotations depending on the larger framework. For instance, the color gold might be an effective choice for a hotel who wants to convey luxury and opulence, but if that same hotel’s target market is a younger, more environmentally conscious crowd, then that selection might carry with it other connotations of being outdated or excessive. In order to maximize profit, you’ll need a robust understanding of your market and their color preferences and associations.
Symbolic definitions are complicated and dependent on variables such as context and culture, so it’s important to design with your specific target market and their cultural and generational context, in mind. In some cultures, white represents innocence, but in others, it can represent death. Marketing teams must conduct their due diligence in order to come up with a design strategy that caters to the target market and draws impactful connections to inspire the consumer to take action.
Watch your competitors closelyThe Ecological Valence Theory explains that we develop preferences for colors based on our emotional experiences with those colors over time. This process can occur on an individual level, affecting color preference, and on a cultural level, creating associations between colors and values or emotions. For instance, green is universally associated with nature because the natural elements like trees and plants we encounter all contain the green pigment chlorophyll, an association leveraged by many brands that want to tap into the natural and eco-friendly market. Looking at other companies’ color palettes can tell you a lot about the connotations color carries, but you’ll also need to distinguish yourself from your competitor’s palettes, even if that means simply adjusting the shade or tone, or adding an accent color, as John Deere does.
Associative Learning dictates that ideas and experiences reinforce each other and can be linked to one another, making it a powerful teaching strategy. Because of this process of reinforcement, it’s essential to examine the industries and brands that implement the palette you’re thinking of selecting, to survey what your brand will be associated with. Sometimes the way it’s been done is not the direction a brand wants to go. In the case of the increasingly saturated video streaming market, emerging services such as Quibi, HBO Max, and Roku sought to stand out against other apps that use blue and red branding. As AdWeek explains, unlike blue and red, purple hasn’t been widely used in the tech space, but is a great choice, as “Purple connotes energy in a really pleasing way.”
Like these emerging services, you’ll want to stand out against competitors to draw consumers’ attention and drive profits.
And last but not least: Symbolism is inseparable from storytelling
The design choices behind your logo, website imagery, and digital assets tell a story about your brand. Each color you use should thus carry its own purpose or message. This intentionality will help solidify your wider brand narrative and the emotional response your brand generates for your consumers.
As we’ve seen, on their own, colors can be interpreted a number of ways. It’s up to a brand to convey the symbolism behind their logo and branding through its brand story. There’s no need to explicitly explain your design choices, but it’s essential to carry out the symbolic meaning you want to convey through the language employed to tell your story in your tagline, website copy, mission statement, and unique value proposition.
If your organization is looking to overhaul its reputation, color is a great place to start. By rethinking your logo and branding to better align with the values and purpose of your brand, you can start a chain of positive changes throughout your entire company, which can affect sales, culture and reputation alike.