Color theory is the concept that color impacts the way we think, feel, and act. As humans, we have evolved into highly visual creatures and color plays a major role in split second decisions we make every day.
According to the Institute for Color Research, people subconsciously judge a person, environment, or product within 90 seconds of initial viewing, and up to 90% of that assessment is based on color alone.
The way color impacts behavior has been studied for thousands of years. Though Aristotle is credited for developing the first theory on color, it was Sir Isaac Newton who laid the groundwork for scientific study of color when he established the visible spectrum using sunlight and prisms in the 1660s. More than a century later, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe argued color was a subjective experience, viewed differently by everyone, in his work, Theory of Colors.
Use what we have discovered about color in the years since to choose colors for your brand and develop effective, cohesive marketing campaigns and communications materials for your company.
The Color Wheel Basics
A basic understanding of the color wheel will go a long way in helping you understand color theory.
The three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—are the base from which all other colors are created. The six secondary colors are equal mixes of primary colors (red + yellow = orange; red + blue = purple; yellow + blue = green). Tertiary colors are created by combining equal amounts of a primary and secondary color. For example, the tertiary color of aqua is created by mixing blue and green. Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel. Purple and yellow are complimentary colors for example. When they are paired, there is a dynamic interaction that makes them appear more intense, so purple looks more purple and yellow looks more yellow.
Hue is the word that is used to describe the common name of a color. Color value (tints, shades, and tones) is the result of adding white, black, or gray to hues. A tint is made by adding white, a shade by adding black, and tones by adding gray.
Colors are also often identified as warm or cool. Generally, red, yellow, and orange are categorized as warm colors while blue, green, and purple are cool colors. However, even warm or cool colors can have undertones that are warm or cool. Note the difference between poppy red, which has a warm undertone, and raspberry pink, which has a cool undertone because it has a touch of blue.
While perceptions about color are subjective, based on a person’s experiences and cultural upbringing, generalities about color can guide you as you choose colors for your branding and marketing efforts.
Red: Power, passion, excitement, and energy. Raises blood pressure and heart rate.
Yellow and Orange: Optimism, playfulness, and friendliness. Stimulate the logic center of the brain.
Blue: Peace, water, and reliability. Calms the mind, stimulates productivity, and curbs appetite.
Purple: Royalty, luxury, and whimsy. Stimulates problem solving and creativity.
Green: Environment, nature, and health. Stimulates harmony and encourages balance between the body and emotions.
White: Simplicity, cleanliness, and purity.
Black: Sophistication, exclusivity, glamour, and power.
The first step for effectively using color is to choose colors for your brand and logo.
Pick no more than two colors (not including black, gray, or white) for a brand or logo. Customers will remember your brand with fewer, rather than more, colors.
Some companies choose color themes to narrow down choices. Among them is the previously mentioned complementary color theme which pairs opposites on the color wheel. Other themes are monochrome, a single color in various shades and hues, and triple, which is three colors equally spaced on the color wheel to create a sense of harmony. This is a bold effect so carefully consider whether is suits your product or service.
Be thoughtful about how much color you use. Just because the sky is the limit doesn’t mean you should go overboard. Customers cannot process everything in sight at once. So be choosey about using color for areas you want to emphasize or de-emphasize.
As well, be mindful of contrast. High contrast reduces eyestrain. The most easily read color combination is black and white, with light backgrounds and dark text rating as most readable. An easy method for testing contrast is to convert materials to grayscale. If they are not legible as grayscale, color will do little to help. Consider the exquisite images of photographers like Ansel Adams, who relied on contrast rather than color to create masterpieces.
Consider content as well. If your materials are heavy with content, don’t overload with color. Rather, be generous with black, gray, and white, and use spot color to highlight areas of focus or points to emphasize.
When you have settled on your branding colors, be sure to document them and give them to everyone who creates work for you. Some companies create a single page branding document with colors, fonts/typefaces, and protocol. Determine branding colors in the following formats: CMYK for printing, RGB for digital, and hexadecimal (hex) for HTML coding. Use your brand colors as a foundation for everything generated for a product or your company, including websites, product documentations, communications, marketing and promotions, and signage.
You may also want to give special consideration for developing materials that can be viewed by customers who are color blind. The previously mentioned grayscale test will help you develop materials they can easily view.
Whether you are a team of one or 100, you can harness the power of color to capture the interest of your target audience and influence their perceptions of your company.