More often than we acknowledge, the messages we send and receive aren’t even conscious – they’re felt. Colours can significantly affect our emotions and our receptiveness toward a company or product.
Choosing the right colours for your business is both an art and a science. Each colour provokes its own set of physiological responses in us, often unconscious, and has its own cultural connotations.
Colours, emotions and symbolism
Red – It connotes strength, courage, health, fertility, anger, blood, romantic passion. Think The Scarlet Letter, the sexual connotations of red stockings in medieval England. The Chinese symbolism of red as the colour of prosperity. Whatever the many cultural interpretations might be, we have no doubt that red conveys energy, intensity and passion, and draws the eye.
It’s thought that primates evolved the ability to see the colour red because it helped them find the brightly coloured, high- energy foods in an otherwise green forest. Perhaps that’s part of the reason our blood pressure tends to rise when we see the colour red.
Use red to convey excitement, flavour, boldness and passion. Use it when you want to get noticed.
Avoid it when you want to communicate calmness, stability and patience. Red can sometimes give an impression of impulsivity.
Orange – Orange is a chameleon colour that can go from deep, passionate vermillion to sunny mango. It seems less serious than red, but also more stable, which perhaps is why it’s prospered as the national colour of the Netherlands.
High-end fashion brand Hermes uses orange to impart youth and playfulness. ING Group uses orange to distinguish itself as a different sort of bank, while making reference to its country of origin (the Netherlands). Safety orange is used precisely for its ability to stand out.
Use orange to convey fun, innovation, youth and sportiness. It’s also a very edible colour, and has been shown to increase appetite, which is why it’s used, along with red and yellow, in fast food marketing.
Avoid it when you want to convey calmness. Orange is also a divisive colour – people often love it or hate it, so always use it with confidence.
Yellow – The colour of happy cartoon sunshine, yellow is the most unambiguously positive colour of the rainbow. It’s a perk-up much like a zip of lemon flavour in an otherwise richer dish, and works well as an accent colour.
Use it to convey: Sunshine, whimsy, lightheartedness, unabashed happiness.
Avoid it when there’s a risk of seeming so happy it’s irritating or disrespectful. Solid yellow can also convey a chemical feeling, especially when it’s sulfur yellow. When paired with black, yellow looks distinctly apian (bee-like).
Green – Natural, alive, environmentally friendly, peaceful, protective, healthy. These are what green can connote.
Use it to convey rejeuvination, hydration, health, environmental friendliness. Much like safety orange and sulfur yellow, acid green is a risk-taker – exciting, but could be interpreted as brash or overwhelming.
Consumers are wise to green-washing, literal and otherwise, so make sure you practise what you preach if you’re using green to show your environmental friendliness.
Blue – They call them blue-chip stocks for a reason. Blue is the most trustworthy and relaxing of colours. It’s the most popular favourite colour out there, but can easily become cold or sad.
Use it to convey: Steady, hard-working, trustworthy, honest, elegant, conservative and traditional. It‘s also a good colour for conveying a sense of cleanness, such as when used on a bottle of water.
Avoid blue if you don’t want to seem boring, or if your product is a food. Blue has been found to reduce appetite.
Purple – A blend of the mood opposites red (passionate) and blue (calm), purple can seem quirky, adventurous and sometimes unsettling. It’s the perfect colour for something magical or mysterious.
Use purple to communicate about a brand or product that’s offbeat. Purple can also chameleon between masculine and feminine.
Avoid it when you want to blend in and not appear eccentric, or if brooding isn’t a part of your nature.
Black – Black is purple’s badass goth cousin. Black is self confident and doesn’t have time for any of this colour crap. Depending on the context, black can stand out, or blend into the shadows. It can be elegant like a French woman’s eyebrow, or aggressive like a combat boot.
Use it to convey boldness. Bright or white letters on a black background cannot be ignored – perfect for communicating a strong message.
Avoid it when you want to cultivate a kind or subtle image. Black is unabashedly strong.
White – Another strong colour, white signifies purity in Western cultures and mourning in many Eastern cultures. It’s the undisputed colour of minimalism – think Apple or Calvin Klein. White is the ultimate flatterer to any colour it’s paired with.
Use it to convey a feeling of cleanness, openness and freshness.
Avoid it when you don’t want to feel too clinical, empty, sterile, or flavourless.
Choosing the right complementary colours is essential for all your marketing materials and branding. There are even apps that can help you make these choices.
Solid colour combinations like primary red and blue can be steady and reassuring, while unexpected colour combinations, such as crimson and mint (dark with light) can lend an air of drama, while almost-clashing combinations, such as orange and pink can surprise the viewer and impart a sense of fun and energy.
Certain colour combinations are easily recognizable and conjur instant associations. Red, white and blue are the patriotic colours of the U.K., U.S., France and many other countries, while yellow and blue are unmistakably Swedish.
Other colour combos are associated with seasons or events. In North America, orange and black signify Halloween and red with green is Christmasy. In China, yellow and black are a funerial combination, while red and yellow or gold are celebratory – historically restricted for use only in royal palaces.
The right colour combination will bring out the character of your company.