The meaning of colours: use in visual communication, branding and designMay 03, 2021
By Alice Ravenna - Senior Graphic Designer and Illustrator
1. Colour Psychology
According to psychology, colours are perceived by the human brain like sensations generating specific feelings and emotions. By simply changing the tone or the saturation of a colour, you can produce completely different emotions. Our reaction to colours depends on our age, gender and culture, this is why it is important to understand the audience we are speaking to and your tone of voice. When choosing your brand colours, for example, you should keep in mind if it is:
- Masculine or feminine
- Lively or serious
- Luxurious or affordable
- Modern or classic
- Loud or subdued
and use the tones consistent with its personality.
|Looking at this your emotions should be of tranquillity and relaxation||Looking at this your emotions should be of energy and vitality|
As mentioned above, colours generate in our brain-specific emotions. These emotions can be used to influence customers to buy your product.
It takes only 90 seconds for people to elaborate an unconscious opinion on a product, and in 62% to 90% of cases, this opinion is based only on its colours.
If you are looking for secrets to raise your company revenue, you should take into consideration the colours. Do you know that Google increased its revenue by $200 million using the correct shade of blue? This change induced users to click more on their ADS (“50 shades of Blue” project, led by Marissa Meyer).
2. What is the psychological meaning of colours?
The meaning of colours is not universal and innate, but it’s conventionally recognised within specific cultural groups. In this article, I am referring to the meaning of colours in our western society. Every country with its culture and history might have different perceptions and meanings. It’s important to research them if you develop assets that are used in several countries. You want to be sure the message is delivered according to the brief taking into consideration the cultural differences.
Firstly, we can divide the range of colours into:
- Warm colours: Red, Yellow, Orange, Pink. They evoke warm feelings because they are associated with the sun and the fire. They are appealing to impulse buyers, and they are largely used in fast food, outlets, and promotions.
Use warm colours to reflect passion, happiness, enthusiasm, and energy.
- Cool colours: Blue, Green and Purple. They induce cool feelings because they are related to refreshing things like water or grass.
They are appealing to budget-conscious shoppers, who want to make well thought out decisions. They are used by banks and malls.
Use cool colours to give a sense of calm or professionalism
- Neutral colours: Black, White, Grey, Brown. They often take on characteristics of the other colours in a palette and can be used to reinforce those influences, but they can also be used on their own and can create very sophisticated designs.
Red is very vital. It’s the colour of passion, excitement, love, and lust; but also of anger, danger, and violence. Due to being an action stimulating colour, it helps emotions to surface and encourages taking action.
Red can have a real physical impact on the human body, like blood pressure, heart and breath rate increase. If you use it in excess, it can be overwhelming, therefore you have to apply it consciously.
It is largely used in the food industry because it is an appetite stimulator. In combination with yellow (energy), it creates an impulsive urgency to buy, and that’s why many fast food brands use this colour palette.
Due to its ability to catch attention, it is also utilised for promotions and it’s very effective with sales. Do you remember the colours for “Special Offer” labels? What colours are they?
Personality: bold, adventurous, energetic
Industries: food, sport, entrainment
Popular Brands: McDonald, Pizza Hut, Coca Cola, Netflix, Kellogg’s, Nintendo.
Yellow is associate with energy and power. It is not a coincidence that many petrol and energy companies use yellow for their brands.
It stimulates the brain, increasing its activity. It represents optimism, positivity and growth. For this reason, it is used in tech or communication industries that want to transmit dynamicity like Nikon or National Geographic
Yellow is a very popular colour among children, and like Red is used to catch attention.
Snapchat’s logo is yellow, instead of the usual blue (Facebook, Twitter) because it is more appealing to a young audience with ideas of happiness, excitement, and creativity.
It’s friendly and positive and for this reason, it is usually linked to inexpensive products, but it can represent luxury in gold shades.
Personality: independent, strategic, impulsive
Industries: travel, transport, food, tech, and sport
Popular Brands: Shell, Snapchat, Nikon, UPS
Orange is a secondary colour made of red and yellow, thus it combines the features of both. It is very bright and vibrant, and it is greatly associated with creativity. It is fun and it makes customers feel as they are dealing with a cutting-edge company.
It attracts attention, but it is not as overwhelming as red, because it is more friendly due to the yellow tones. It also stimulates the logic centre of the brain and promotes enthusiasm.
Orange communicates excitement, vitality, courage, and adventure. For this reason, Harley Davidson chose this colour for its branding.
I suggest avoiding this colour for luxury, traditional, and sophisticated brands
Personality: Adventurous, competitive, disaffected
Industries: art and design, entertainment, food, sport, travel, transportation
Popular Brands: EasyJet, Harley Davidson, Nickelodeon, VLC, Amazon
Blue is the colour of calmness and responsibility. It is associated with peace.
It is the most popular colour thus it is the most commonly used in graphic design and branding.
It helps in reducing stress, enhances concentration and stimulates productivity. It also helps the development of the decision-making mechanism.
Dark shades of blue, like navy or royal blue, are largely used for banks because they communicate authority, proficiency, and stability. They are strong and reliable.
Light blue tints, on the other side, transfer a sense of tranquillity and calmness while bright blue tones are refreshing. For these characteristics it is very indicated to promote socialisation and blue is largely used for social media (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn...)
It is not recommended to use this colour for food because it is unappetising, but sometimes it is utilised inside expensive and fancy restaurants where is normal to serve small portions.
Personality: loyal, respectful, social
Industries: banking, finance, tech, health care, social media, aerospace
Popular Brands: IBM, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ford, Intel, HP, Oral-B, Bank of America
Like Blue, Green is a very calming colour, but also includes some energy from yellow. It transmits vitality but in a relaxed and natural way. In opposition to red, it reduces blood pressure and heart rate. Green stimulates harmony in the brain and encourages a balance between body and emotions. Because of these features, it is used inside shops to calm and relax customers: Starbucks is an example.
It is the colour of nature and life, so it is commonly used for organic and eco-friendly products. It promotes a new beginning, growth, rejuvenation, abundance, and restores energy.
Brighter tints are more energising, while brownish shades are more representative of nature and security. Dark shades are associated with prosperity and riches.
Many technologic brands use green to communicate growth and initiative like WhatsApp, X-Box, Acer.
Personality: open, friendly, authentic
Industries: Environment, alternative energy, leisure, education, tech, banking, organic food
Popular Brands: Greenpeace, Spotify, Starbucks, BP, Android, Nvidia
Purple is the colour of royalty and spirituality. It gives elegance and prestige to a design or branding. It is also associated with creativeness and imagination, and it stimulates the problem solving and creativity areas of the brain. The light tints are related to spring and romance.
For its elegancy, it’s often used for fashion, perfumes, and beauty industries, but also for brands with a creative and innovative approach, like Yahoo.
Purple could also be associated with extravagance and excess; therefore, you should use it carefully.
Personality: spiritual, dignified, understanding
Industries: luxury, beauty, religion, humanitarian, anti-ageing products
Popular Brands: Hallmark, Yahoo, Craigslist, twitch, Cadbury
Pink is a sweet and delicate colour, related to femininity, love and romance.
This colour increases the heart rate, motivates action, and encourages creativity.
It is commonly used for women and girls’ products: Victoria’s Secret, Barbie, Hello Kitty.
Personality: sensitive, feminine, romantic
Industries: toys and children products, woman products, fashion, bakery
Popular Brands: Victoria’s Secret, Barbie, Cosmopolitan
White is the colour of purity, virtue, deity and clearness. It is often associated with healthcare, but it can be used to give a sense of creativity since it acts as a clean canvas. The white text in the Lego logo uses exactly this feature: the red square embodies the fun and excitement the children experience playing with a toy that offers infinite opportunities for creating anything the mind can visualize. The same idea is under the Subway logo: the white text represents the customisable key feature of their sandwiches.
In design, White is the most common colour used for the background but don’t underestimate its importance: the correct use of white spaces is vital for a well-balanced composition.
Personality: optimistic, independent, innocent
Industries: healthcare, disinfectants, fashion
Popular Brands: Adidas, ASOS, Lego, Subway
Technically Black is the absence of colour but is also dominant and strong. It is generally associated with elegance, power and formality, but also with death and mystery.
Its character is very versatile, and it could be modern or traditional, exciting or relaxing, depending on the combination with other colours. Paring Black with a bright colour can add energy to sophistication.
Nike uses black to evoke power, strength, and stability. Chanel logo communicates luxury, elegance, sophistication.
Black is a symbol of intelligence, but it could be overwhelming if used too frequently.
Used in a design it could communicate a sense of elegance and sophistication
Personality: decisive, confident, serious
Industries: Fashion, Automotive, Tech, Sport
Popular Brands: Chanel, Nike, WWF
Grey is the supreme neutral colour. It’s the colour of metal and it gets durability, concreteness, and endurance features from it.
For these reasons, it is largely utilised in the technology and automotive industries.
Grey is generally formal, timeless, and professional, but can be innovative if used in the correct way. It creates a sense of composure and communicates maturation and refinement.
You should use this colour with parsimony though because too much grey can lead to feelings of emptiness and depression, and it can be unstimulating if it is used too often.
Personality: Formal, sophisticate, timeless
Industries: Tech, Automotive
Popular Brands: Apple, Audi, Peugeot
Brown is the colour of soil, wood and stone, so it transmits comfort and security. It is largely used for organic food and agriculture industries.
The dark shades are used by handcrafted products companies, due to the idea of simplicity and durability they transmit.
Brown is a masculine colour, and it is ideal for products associated with rural life and outdoor. It also can be an elegant colour and can be used for high-quality vintage items.
Personality: honest, masculine, down to earth
Industries: agriculture, food, construction, transport, craftsmanship
Popular Brands: UPS, M&M’s, Louise Vuitton
A colour could have lots of meanings. They depend on the context the colour is used in.
4. The impact of colours in branding
Every choice must take into consideration the meaning, the use, the channels, the audience, the message and so on.
If you plan to design a brand, that hopefully will last a long time, there is less space testing and frequent amends. Yes, rebranding is possible but it’s a huge decision and requires serious considerations.
If you are launching a website, an email or even a leaflets campaign, you can run tests to see which colours (or shade of colours) perform better, so you can be flexible in these cases.
In this (digital) era, you must catch your customer attention in less than 3 seconds, the average time of scrolling on devices, sometimes less (according to Nielsen it is 2 seconds). Compared to 20 years ago, it is a huge difference and increases the need of having the right colours for your brand and your communication.
You can try it by yourself: think about you shopping in a superstore (or go there) and see how much time you have to decide what product to buy in front of a shelf. Now grab your telephone and open a social media app. How much time do you stay on the opening screen before you start scrolling?
Now, do you see the importance of colours?