The Psychology of Color

Tiffany's blue / Tiffany's
Tiffany’s blue / Tiffany’s

“Color is like a mind-altering drug. It has the power to make us feel good, change perceptions, and create new connections,” said Laurie Pressman, who is in charge of Pantone’s Color Institute, at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. She urged designers to apply “color thinking to improve design.” But to do this, designers must first understand the brand they are designing for and the target audiences they hope to reach. Before going for the Pantone color book, they must answer the questions: “What does the brand stand for? What message does it want to convey?” Furthermore, to succeed in their quest to find the perfect color, designers must “throw away all the old color rules and use unique colors. Be bold and resonate with your audience and the broader culture.”

“Color defines our world. It makes up some 80 percent of the visual experience. The colors we see have both a psychological and physiological effect on us.” Brand colors are experienced in a largely intuitive sense — “just 5 percent of our reaction is rational.” So for any brand, selecting a color is one of the most important decisions they will make. “With infinite choices, brands really have about 3 seconds to grab attention.” Some firms have had incredible success with unique colors. Among luxury brands, Hermes’ orange color has become as recognizable as its logo. Tiffany’s robins-egg blue (seen above) is so recognizable that “you don’t even need to need to see the brand to know it’s them.”

While the psychology of color is always changing and people create new associations with both new and old colors, colors still have some essential qualities:

Blue is the dominant color and most universally accepted. It’s associated with respite and peacefulness, tranquility and constancy, dependability and trust. Many corporations use blue because it says “integrity and competence.” Blue is also about connecting, which is why a lot of information and communication technology firms, like Facebook, Twitter, Safari, and Skype, use it. Darker blues relay solidness and authority. Baby blues are sleep related, which is why Ritz Carlton’s recent brand revamp features this color. Electric blues are fresh and modern, with high-energy intensity. These colors appeal to young people because they read as “tech-savvy and forward thinking. It’s a signal color for the younger generation.”

Ritz Carlton's new brand / Under Consideration
Ritz Carlton’s new color palette / Under Consideration

The human eye can distinguish between 8-10 million greens because our earliest ancestors had to be able to easily see predators in the forest and savannah. But green relaxes and soothes us. Green’s refreshing and restorative and connotes youth and growth. Many skincare firms use green packaging to relay a sense of youth, regardless of whether their products actually make you look younger. Some firms use green to try to appeal healthier. In the European Union, McDonalds has rolled out a green logo to try to appear more healthy and sustainable, which are important to European consumers. Deeper greens are trustworthy and traditional, while teals are tasteful and confident, and light greens represent sanctuary.

McDonalds in Greece / DLG Studio
McDonalds in Greece / DLG Studio

Purple is associated with wealth and royalty. According to Wikipedia, “purple was the color worn by Roman magistrates; it became the imperial color worn by the rulers of the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, and later by Roman Catholic bishops. Similarly in Japan, the color is traditionally associated with the Emperor and aristocracy.” Purple, Pressman said, is an “artful balancing act between red and blue and can convey many messages.” In the 196os, the counter culture used purple. Think Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. David Bowie used purple to subvert authority, changing the color’s meaning for Glam Rock. Prince took a similar course with Purple Rain. Purple is a great “seamless” color that allows designers to meld into other shades. “It’s dependable, authoritative, but capable of transformation.” The BBC now uses purple for its logo.

Purple Rain / Loud and Clear UK
Purple Rain / Loud and Clear UK

Red is connected with blood and life itself. “It’s riveting and dramatic. It has an immediate effect and muscles out all other colors, so you have to be careful using it.” Red can be associated with evil and danger but also passion and romance. “It’s the most accepted bright color and crosses cultural barriers.” Red is high energy; we respond to it with our adrenal glands. “Just looking at red speeds our metabolism by 15 percent.” Red and black together send a strong psychological message of vitality and virility. Deeper reds are rich and refined and signify luxury.

Pink is playful, bold, and youthful, while light pink is sweet and innocent. “Interestingly, pink used to be the color for boys.” After World War II, pink came into its own as a color for the newly empowered female consumer. “Pink was imposed on women by our culture.” Think of the pink Cadillac for “the lady of the house.” Pink is now the color of breast cancer awareness. But neon pink is a bit tougher, used now used by womens rights protesters. And Pressman thinks this tougher pink is slowly becoming more male again. Firms like T Mobile, AirBNB, and Taco Bell are now using shades of dark pink.

Example of "protest pink" in Chicago / Red alert politics
Example of “protest pink” in Chicago / Red alert politics

Yellow has sparkle, heat, and vitality. It is connected with intellectual curiosity, and quick, clear decisions. It’s also frequently used in brands meant to appeal to kids. Pressman explained how Pantone worked closely with the producers of the film Minions to find the exact shade of yellow that kids would like the most. “We sifted through all these yellows with them.” She also said it was no surprise that Pharrell chose yellow for his song Happy, as it’s a “hopeful, optimistic color.” Beyond being kid-friendly though, yellow is also the most reflective color and attention grabbing. Yellow and black together are the single most visible color combinations.

Minions / Universal Pictures
Minions / Universal Pictures

Brown means stability, reliability, longevity. When UPS moved to a brown color palette, it quickly became the number-one package delivery service provider. “Brown is about returning to basics.” Pressman said shades that would have been seen as too dry and earthy 20 years ago are now luxurious. See Gucci brown.

Gucci packaging / Precious packaging UK
Gucci packaging / Precious packaging UK

White connotes innocence, purity, simplicity, and silence. It can be used to create a sense of pristine cleanliness and freshness. Many firms use white for cleaning products. Apple has used it to great effect to create a sense that their products are easy to use.

Black is empowering, and relates to both authority and submission. Black and gold is the most opulent color combination. Black and italics together especially connote luxury.

Orange is a symbol of fruitfulness but, like red, must be used sparingly, as it can easily overwhelm. It’s associated with vibrancy and promotes socialization and communication. Deeper orange relate to strength and authority, while corals grab attention. For many decades, orange was associated with fast food chains or Halloween, but now it’s globally accepted. Oranges, said Mikel Circus, who leads conceptual design and flavors for Firmenich, are also closely connected with flavor. So many Pantone oranges are named after citruses, for good reason. “We see orange and it’s a visual cue for a taste and smell.”

Circus and Pressman walked us through their predictive tools for anticipating future colors. Colors that we see today are actually about four years in the making. Circus explained that colors most often start with “inventors” in the world of technology, high design, and street fashion, then are picked up by “translators,” and then “transmitters” like Pantone that forecast the new colors. These new colors are then picked up by “early adopters,” like automobile companies, perfumiers, and fashion designers. Only then do they make it into advertisements in fashion magazines and are proclaimed as the hot new color by these magazines’ editors. These colors are then produced by all kinds of manufacturers, who spread these colors to the mainstream. “The street is a major source of innovation.”

Trend spotters like Circus and Pressman showed how a particular shade of orange — Flame Orange, PMS 1655 — spread from the streets to the mainstream in about four years. By 2012, it had become “Tangerine Tango,” a shade that is friendly, uplifting, playful, and vital. Focus groups reflected on the color and thought it was high in terms of “health, authenticity, and simplicity.” Understanding the values associated with the color among certain target audiences, Circus and Pressman can then help firms use the color to create products these consumers will buy. “We package a dream, but rely on consumers” to tell us what that dream is.

1655 / Pantone
1655 / Pantone

Circus and Pressman told designers to apply some key principles when working with color: “dig in new lands; think like an outsider; and define emotional touch points.” But they reiterated that designers must “understand the psychology of color first before applying it to a brand.” The end-goal should really be a “consumer-designed product.”

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