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Colour: Why is colour choice so important in design?

19th July 2013 by Josh Beadon

Printing Branding Graphic Design

Having worked in the creative sector for nearly twenty years, I’m pretty good at seeing a colour and being able to give it its corresponding Pantone reference number. I’m sure many people will think that this is a bit sad, but colour is one of the most powerful tools that a designer can draw upon and understanding how colour affects us is key in communicating messages effectively.

There are many essays and academic papers on the subject of colour theory. It isn’t my intention to simply regurgitate this material. My aim in this article is to explain how colour affects us at a basic human level and examine the ’expressive’ qualities and ‘cultural associations’ that we all have with the colour spectrum.

Colour touches us all of us at a basic, even primal level. To give you an example: In nature we all know that Red is a warning colour. Red berries, Red-capped mushrooms, - they’re poisonous right? We also know that Yellow in certain situations means danger – think wasps, bees and hornets. Over the thousands of years of human evolution, we have learnt to ‘read’ the world around us using colour… this hasn’t just disappeared because we live in modern cities and have state-of-the-art technologies at our fingertips. Understanding the power that colour holds over us, and harnessing this properly is what designers strive for – or should do.

“I don’t like lime green, so whatever you do, don’t make my logo that colour”

I suspect that there isn’t a graphic designer who hasn’t heard a client say something like this before. I appreciate that I’ve just stated that colour affects all of us a basic level, but it is of course, highly subjective. There is even some evidence that our age is a factor in our liking of colour. Expert Faber Birren carried out many studies into this area. In his book Color Psychology and Color Therapy, he found that blue and red “maintain a high preference throughout life” but that yellow is popular with children. He also found that “with maturity comes a greater liking for hues of shorter wave length (blue, green, purple) than for hues of longer wave length (red, orange, and yellow)”

So given the seemingly infinite number of variables, where do you start? 'How do you make the best colour choice for your next promotional leaflet? or company identity? or website? Fortunately there is a widely accepted set of ‘colour associations’ that give us a good starting point.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to concentrate on ‘western colour associations’ because there are some global differences – in many parts of Asia, for example, White is associated with ‘mourning’ whereas in our own culture it is Black that has such connotations.

The chart below details our most common emotional associations. Of course, colours have both positive and negative connotations - Green may have positive natural and environmental attributes for example, but it can also be the colour of envy and greed!

The proof that the above chart really works. Just look at the following well-know brand identities, it doesn’t matter whether it’s within the IT industry or a high-street chain, the basic conventions still apply: 

Apple Computers

Grey – Neutrality, Wisdom
White – Light, Simplicity
Black – Sophistication, Wealth



I’m sure that the colour associations match perfectly with Apple’s core brand values (see my previous blog article) and that that is no accident.

Boots the Chemist

Blue – Efficiency, Intelligence, Professional
White – Purity, Simplicity, Hope



BP

Green – Eco, Environmental, Balance
Yellow – Confidence, Wealth

White – Purity

Despite BP’s recent environmental record, you can imagine how the designers arrived at the decision to use these colours, and why these weren’t changed when BP totally rebranded back in 2000.

So next time you are putting a piece of design together, whether it be a small press advert or a 48 sheet billboard, remember that colour plays as powerful a role in communicating meaning as the words and pictures you are using. It’s why police cells are painted in pastel shades, why theme parks use bright reds and oranges, why solicitors favour blue, and why Hitler chose red, black and white for his swastika…

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