I always love talking about not just the psychological effects, but the physiological effects—for example, the color red actually increases our heart rate. An amazing thing.
(Note that a lot of the color research I do is based on the U.S. and other English-speaking cultures; from culture to culture, different things mean different things to different people.)
I always start with red.
Red is the color of excitement. The color of attention. The best color, in my opinion.
Red, for most people, has a psychological connection to excitement and attention. Studies have shown that when shown the color red, our heart rate actually increases. (You can kind of play back and forth with correlation vs. causation.)
Red is eye-catching. It’s the most exciting color for me. It’s also psychologically tied to attraction: we typically find that the color red is an attractive trait when we see that on members of our preferred gender. And I can tell you right now, when my wife wears red, I’m there for it.
Next on the color spectrum of ROYGBIV is orange, which was actually my favorite color for a long time before I landed on red.
Orange has a psychological association with fun, ambition, and youthfulness. It’s very close to red, and it’s very attention-getting, very bright, and has an essence of warmth to it. So if your brand is looking to capture the attention of younger people and/or showcase youthfulness, or maybe ambition, orange is a good color to go with.
Yellow is a great color. It’s associated with happiness; smiley faces are most of the time yellow (until modern technology gave us the ability to change the colors of our smiley faces). It’s associated with happiness and optimism.
Much like red gives us a visual response, studies have shown that when you’re shown the color yellow, your brain actually releases dopamine; it’s another physical response to a visual stimuli. I always thought that was crazy, that we’ve so heavily associated this color with happiness that our brains respond with the happiness drug when we see it.
Green is the color of growth, the color associated with nature, the “green” movement, and being sustainable. It’s also associated with money and wealth.
A fun scientific fact about green is that it’s the easiest color for our eyes to process, which is why we tend to associate it with this idea of Zen and natural things and peace; it is very commonly used in the worlds of yoga and meditation. Green is just easier for us to process, and therefore causes less stress on our brains.
A lot of people say that blue is their favorite color. It’s the color of trust and loyalty, and is heavily associated in our psyche with things that we find established or that we are putting our faith in. Think about Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, all of which we’ve given massive amounts of our personal information to, without even hesitating…until recent years, when things have come out and we’ve realized that maybe we shouldn’t have given them that much information.
Lots of banks tend to use this color; Chase Bank in particular is one of the more famous ones using blue. If you want to elicit trust and be associated with this sturdy established authority, then blue is probably best color to go with.
Violet is the color most associated with prosperity and royalty. Many cultures have historically associated violet/purple with royalty, because it was such a hard color to get. And so we just naturally continued associating that color with royalty and things that are very lavish and extravagant.
Now, the flip side of this is because of that association and its long running place in our psyche, anybody who tends to overuse violet can come off as fake or untruthful—as putting on a front, so to speak. Studies have shown that people are actually turned off by an over-usage of violet or purple tones. So I always say that if you are going to use purple in any of your marketing, maybe just use it as a highlight; don’t overdo it, because it can send the wrong signal, even if it’s on a subconscious level.
Gray is a solid and timeless color. We associate it with all things strong and sturdy and firm: the color of cement or rock. One thing great thing about gray is you can really never go wrong with it because it is such a neutral color. I like to use it on the lighter spectrum.
If you are catering to an audience that is dyslexic or has some sort of a reading impairment, they say that when you put text on top of a gray tone rather than a pure white tone, it helps them to read and interpret things a little bit more easily.
There’s all kinds of mixed reactions with the color brown, and it really does depend on the tone you use. We can associate it with all sorts of things: from chocolate, to dirt, to poop. So it’s one of those colors you want to really be cautious with. But if you’re going for something earthy, something organic, brown tends to be a really great color to have in the palette.
White is a color that we associate with cleanliness, clarity, weightlessness, from a psychological standpoint.
When I look at colors on, say, a website or a graphic, to me, colors have weight. And the more dense or rich a color is, the more weight it tends to have. I have talked to other artists about this, too, and they feel the same way. In fact, in my course, I talk about this concept of using colors to create balance within a design or graphic.
When you go to a website and it has a bunch of different-colored elements all over the place, it feels really active and alive, but it can also feel very heavy and very difficult to consume. Whereas if you go to a website that is more white space, white on on black, and there’s no other elements on the page or lots of different colors, it feels lighter.
So to me, white is a color that has great purpose and offers great clarity to design. It can be a great way to add function and form without adding heaviness or a bunch of visual weight.
Black, the last color on my list here, is the color of elegance and power. You see a lot of high-end brands using the color black heavily in their marketing and in their website graphics because it’s associated with prestige and elegance. It says, “I don’t have to be flamboyant or super attention-getting, because you’re going to pay attention to be one way or another. And I can do it in the dark.” That’s sort of the psychology behind the color black.
Apple uses it a lot now; they had all their products for the longest time in just straight black or gray or white. And Lamborghini famously uses a lot of black in their marketing with their yellow highlights. Ferrari also; very high-end, elegant brands using black as the basis of all of their visual assets.
You can dive deeper into the colors and all their different tones and hues…but that could turn into a full seven-day conference!