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Jessie Lacey
by Jessie Lacey
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A Crash Course In Color Theory Part Three: The Psychology of Color

A Crash Course In Color Theory Part Three: The Psychology of Color

The Psychology of Color is the study of colors effects on human emotions and on our behaviors. What do you feel when you see yellow on a sign, or a red light light-up? Does the color of a room effect your perception of the temperature of the air? Is it possible to use strategic color in advertising to effect your eating or buying habits? What you feel is based on both internal and external variables. Scientists have found that actual physiological changes take place in human beings when they are exposed to certain colors. Colors can stimulate, excite, depress, tranquilize, increase appetite and create a feeling of warmth or coolness. This is known as chromodynamics. Externally, the effect a color has on humans is based on cultural context, which we talk about in Part Two: Color Harmony & Combinations .

The internal, physiological effects of color are largely dependent on how your eyes see light. From what we learned in Part One: Color Space & Visible Light , black is a subtractive color, it absorbs all color, reflecting back no light. Psychologically, the implications are considerable. Since it reflects no light, black is often interpreted as menacing because it is literally darkness. Black creates a perception of seriousness and weight. Just as black is total absorption, white is complete reflection, therefore giving white a heightened perception of space. A white room will feel a lot larger than a room with dark walls, which is why ceilings are usually painted a lighter color or white. Another example of this internal effect on how colors effect us is with the feeling of warmth or cool. Employees in a room painted light blue might complain about feeling cold, but paint the room a warm tone and the sweaters come off even though there is no temperature change.

The external effects of color were discussed in the last part, Color Harmony & Combinations—a look at cultural context and social trends. For example, pink is seen as a feminine color while blue is seen as masculine. This is cultural since just a hundred years ago, popular opinion was completely the opposite. It is important to keep this cultural effect in mind, because the implications of it show that the psychology of color, based on external variables, are dynamic and not physiological. Making hard and fast rules based on something so dynamic would be limiting and near-sighted. Assuming for example, that men would never-ever buy a pink product means you would have lost out on the trend in male clothing (and profits!) that saw hoards of men buying and wearing pink button-ups and polos with little effect on their masculinity.

Some brands are instantly recognizable by a single color. Consider a canary blue gift box; a black apple; yellow arches—what brands come to mind? Color is the predominate element of identification and association with these brands. Color enables customers to instantly recognize and draw emotional associations to a brand. Picking the right color should never be underestimated. Here are some great color brands.

  • Coke has made red and white its signature colors. Same goes for Target.
  • T-Mobile's magenta has been registered with the firm since 2000.
  • Walmart uses that ubiquitous blue.
  • Home Depot blankets everything with orange.
  • Post-It has a shade of canary yellow that trademarked by 3M. They even had a trademark dispute with Microsoft back in 1997 over MS's notes software.
  • Deere uses 'John Deere Green' successfully to distinguish itself.
  • Tiffany trademarked its own shade of 'Robin's Egg' baby blue, PMS number 1837, the number comes from the year of Tiffany’s founding.
  • The purple pill—AstraZeneca's heartburn relief drug Nexium has its purple protected.
  • United Parcel Service (UPS) is brown and evokes feelings of simplicity and honesty.

Color may not seem all that important at a first glimpse, but it really does have an impact on branding and advertising. We deploy A/B website testing to experiment with copy, design placement, and color.  We’ve seen 85% increases in website click-through-rate (CTR) just from changing one word in the button copy and the button color. The trick is to make a CTA button stand out from the rest of the website in such a way that it is easy to identify as a clickable button—yet keeping the color and design pleasant enough to unify a design. There are no set rules! “Always use” or “all links must be blue” is just not true.
Dirigo is not just about websites—we do plenty of packaging work too. Color is a critical design component for packaging. When it comes to food, color is widely used to illustrate flavors in food products. Next time you’re at the store take a look at Smuckers jam. The packaging color matches the fruit color (e.g. purple for grape, red for strawberry, etc.). Black is often used to indicate luxury or high-quality items. Natural, organic, and healthy products use greens and browns. And though blue is the most popular color in the United States, it is not used much in food packaging. The major exception is skim milk and fat-free products. Getting a product noticed on a crowded store shelf is a science in its own right.

The color of your major competitor is an important point to ponder. If you’re the first in a new industry or market segment, then you have first dibs on color. Take a look at the heavy equipment marketplace, John Deere has green, CAT is mostly yellow, and Kubota is orange. If starting a new tractor brand, you best steer clear of these colors.

Always remember, the first point of interaction with a buyer is shaped by the color, and color is the most memorable sense. Don’t take colors for granted.

I put together a handy guide to color psychology, part three of my Crash Course in Color Theory posters.

Download the print-worthy PDF here.


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