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In the magical world of design, colors play a very important role. When creating a brand guide for your business, it's essential to pick the right colors early on. Understanding the psychological effects of colors is a great starting point. But your efforts shouldn’t stop there!
There are perceptions associated with color that go much deeper than the common things we know about them. In this article, we want to share some unexpected situations in which color has an important influence over our perceptions of reality.
The "Universal Principles of Design" is a book about how design is intertwined with the human condition. The authors Lidwell, Holden and Butler explain how different aspects of design affect our perceptions in different situations. Six of the 120 principles mentioned in the book are about color effects. Studying these color effects can help you achieve better marketing results. And you'll also find it’s pretty amazing how significantly color can affect our perceptions of reality.
If you want a quick overview of this post, you can check out our visual summary below or skip ahead to read a detailed explanation of how each color is perceived in different contexts.
There are plenty of scientific studies on color perception that challenge what we think we know about the psychology of color and dig deeper into how color actually affects our decision making.
The way consumers perceive color not only has to do with the color itself but also with how well it fits with the product or service it is associated with.
In this post, the term “color effects” refers to how color perception affects different aspects of our lives. The colors we will look at in this article are black, white, red, blue, yellow and green.
The color black is timeless, sleek, clean-cut and exudes confidence. However, it also represents darkness, violence and angst. Depending on how it’s used, black can have different meanings in clothing, sports uniforms and in design.
Visualize a man wearing a classic black suit, a woman wearing a fancy black dress and a teenager in a black goth-style outfit.
What is the color effect of each outfit?
It’s in these differences that our perceptions of color stray from classic color meanings.
Studies have been conducted in order to understand not only how color creates a certain perception but also how a piece of clothing can do the same. The term "enclothed cognition" is a way of explaining how a specific garment affects the wearer and the people who interact with that person.
There is a cross-cultural perception that darker colors are associated with negativity over lighter colors. During the 1980s, an intensive study was conducted to decipher if darker-colored uniforms affected the attitudes of sports players. The objective was to determine if teams that wore black uniforms were more aggressive than others.
In the first part of this study, participants who were not sports fans were shown photos of NFL and NHL team uniforms in both black and light colors. They were asked to rate the uniforms in terms of "good" or "bad," "timid" or "aggressive," and "nice" or "mean." The immediate results were that the black uniforms were rated as aggressive and perceived as more malevolent.
In the second part of this research, the researchers studied how the actual players were affected by wearing the black uniforms. By analyzing penalty reports of both NFL and NHL teams from 1970 to the mid-1980s, they found that the teams with black uniforms had consistently registered more penalties.
When the study was conducted with referees to determine if they would call out a penalty faster on a black-uniformed player over a player in a light-colored uniform, the results were as expected. The study provided evidence that black uniforms in the NHL and NFL created a perception of aggressiveness in both the wearer and the spectator.
And it also provided some interesting results to support the theory of enclothed cognition, mentioned previously.
In the "Universal Principles of Design," Lidwell and Butler mention how the color black creates a perception of darkness and danger. This may also be related to the fact that black dogs are not usually the first to be adopted from shelters. This phenomenon is known as "black dog syndrome" and is a perfect example of a black effect.
Some of the different theories on why black dogs are left behind are quite interesting:
Even though black dog syndrome has nothing to do with design, it reveals how color meanings and perception can differ depending on context. There are certain color effects we should always take into consideration when establishing our brand colors.
Consider the color black in design and marketing. Black, shiny products seem luxurious, elegant and sophisticated. Black packaging gives products a higher perceived value but also makes them look heavier. The way black is used in design can send different messages, according to how it’s combined with other colors and textures.
For example, MAC Cosmetics uses all-black packaging, while Clinique uses fresh colors mixed with metallics. Both are prestigious makeup brands, but their core values are represented in the colors of their packaging. MAC and Clinique are perceived as brands with different styles, mainly because of their color schemes.
Similar to how a black dress or a black suit creates the perception of confidence, black packaging exemplifies sophistication and luxury.
In graphic design, black is a great color for outlining colorful shapes or using it as a shadow effect for a light-colored shape. Black writing on a light background is the most readable and approachable.
Using black as a background will give your design a sophisticated look if the elements overlaying it are clean and ordered. Using bright and neon colors will give it more of a trendy sophistication.
Black can help finish up any design, even with a simple line or shadow.
White is primarily seen as a peaceful color. White is the color of cleanliness, order and moral goodness. Let’s consider a few things we associate with the color white:
In many cultures, white is the color of purity and innocence. In some Asian countries, white is the color of reincarnation and new beginnings. If we look at antique and religious paintings, the “holy” and “good” characters are painted in white or very light colors. In the same instances, the “bad” and the “evil” are portrayed in darker colors.
These ancient color choices have helped to create the perception that “white is inherently good.”
As part of a study by The Kellogg School of Medicine, researchers found interesting results regarding white lab coats—so revealing that they coined the term "enclothed cognition,” mentioned earlier.
In the first experiment, students were randomly assigned to either wear a white lab coat or street clothes. They were then instructed to answer questions to measure their ability to detect incongruities (for example, the word "red" in the color green). Those who wore white lab coats made an average of 50 percent less errors in comparison with the students who wore street clothes. The same results were obtained in two subsequent experiments.
It turns out that the simple act of wearing a doctor's coat can make a student feel more intelligent and capable.
The white lab coat effect can actually be analyzed in two directions. Wearing a doctor's coat can make a med student or a doctor feel more capable and respected, while patients will also feel more confident and secure when their doctor wears a white lab coat.
The ingrained perception that most people have of the white lab coat is a huge white effect.
Using white in your designs will make them seem more approachable and inviting. White backgrounds feel airy and make text easy to understand. Using white text over darker photos or backgrounds will give the design a fresh and positive feel.
However, using too much white can make a design feel cold and lacking in personality. White, if not used properly, can be incredibly underwhelming.
White is the color of minimalism. This does not mean that white and minimalism equals emptiness. There needs to be a balance. While too much white can end up feeling barren, solitary or lacking emotion, just the right amount can draw attention to the most important parts of your design.
Consider certain white objects or settings that can be seen as negative:
These things are of course not the normal things one would associate with the color white, but they are nonetheless important. For example, too much white space in a design white light-colored text will be hard to read and can be interpreted as too boring and lacking in impact.
Minimalism as a design style is a favorite of creatives and designers. That said, not everyone enjoys minimalism and using it on the wrong audience could hurt your marketing results.
The color red has always been associated with passion, intensity, danger and alertness. Just think about the things that are associated with this color: fire trucks, red traffic lights, ambulances and police lights—and also the the color of blood. Red is the kind of color that carries a lot of power. Unfortunately, it also has some qualities that could be contradictory in certain situations.
As with black and white, red also has its own stories to tell when it comes to clothing.
Red is a synonym of passion and fertility. Not only between humans but also between animals. The color red is a subconscious sign that it’s time to mate. These animal instincts have affected our collective subconscious. Red clothing is now generally seen as more attractive than any other color.
A study conducted by two University of Rochester psychologists revealed that when men are shown photos of a woman in a red shirt and a photo of the same woman in a blue shirt, they consistently rated the one wearing red as more attractive and sexually desirable. They also responded that they would spend more money on a date with them.
Interestingly, the results only applied to attractiveness, not intelligence or good nature.
The Liverpool soccer team has worn a completely red uniform since the 1960s. The story of how their legendary uniform came to be is one for the red-effects library. The then-new manager William Shankly had the idea to change the uniforms to something more intimidating.
The players had been wearing red shirts and white shorts. When one of the players tried on the new all-red combination, he said, “Why not go all the way and wear red socks too?”
As the story goes, the new manager wanted to use the color red for its psychological meaning of power and strength. The team played in all-red uniforms that day and won against Belgium, starting them on a spell of success never before seen in British football.
The color red in sports has been proven to give those wearing it a psychological advantage over their opponent. In sports like wrestling, if the two fighters are neck-and-neck, the one wearing red will most likely win.
Red has a deep-rooted association with danger, awareness and alertness. What red things in our lives have reinforced these perceptions?
When designing with red, we must consider how it helps with detail-oriented tasks as it creates a heightened sense of alertness. However, it does not seem to help with creative tasks at all.
The University of British Columbia conducted a study to determine which color is better at boosting brain performance and receptivity to advertising: red or blue. The results showed that it depends on the nature of the task. When test subjects were asked to perform detailed tasks, they did better with a red screen than with a blue screen. When asked to use creative thinking, they did much better with blue screens.
The second part of the study involved studying how people react to blue and red advertisements. The ads with negative messages like “cavity prevention” were better received when they were in red, while more positive messages such as “tooth whitening” were better received in blue.
It turns out that red is not a good color to boost creativity due to its association with alertness. In this case, the color association is effective, even if the danger is as minimal as a tooth cavity.
The color yellow is the easiest color to see with the human eye. It is a powerful color in daily life and also in design. According to how the human eye sees color wavelengths, yellow is the strongest of all. Yellow is also colorblind-safe, meaning that even if a person is colorblind, they will still see yellow.
Light and fresh yellow tones can give a sense of happiness and contentment in the interior of a room for example. However, when the yellow is dull it can have a negative effect, psychologically affecting your mood toward depression and unsettling feelings.
Yellow tonality in skin increases the perceived health of a person. When someone has a good diet, full of fruits and vegetables, their bodies receive good amounts of plant pigments called carotenoids.
A pale person without a yellowish or even pinkish tone will look blue or green and rather unhealthy. On the other hand, if a person looks too yellow, they will look jaundiced or like they suffer from a liver problem such as hepatitis.
This yellow effect reinforces the idea that a color will create different perceptions depending on the situation and the comparisons that are made.
Following the idea that yellow is the most visible color, red firetrucks in some cities were painted yellow for greater visibility. This change from the usual firetruck red to lime yellow was meant to prevent roadside accidents to and from emergency situations. It was expected that since the color yellow is easier to see, the amount of accidents involving fire trucks would decrease.
The change did in fact reduce traffic accidents. However, later studies showed that it was far more important to make these vehicles recognizable as firetrucks than to increase their visibility in traffic. Thus, the firetrucks were painted red again.
The color yellow can be extremely useful when you want to make certain elements of your design stand out. Yellow also creates a good amount of visual contrast with other colors. Yellow details will always stand out.
If you want to use yellow as the main color in a design, however, you should think about it carefully. Too much yellow can negate the happy feelings that are elicited when the color is used as an accent color rather than a primary one. Think of the yellow sun in the middle of a vast, blue sky.
Blue is the color of the sky and water. It is tranquil, inviting and calming. Blue is considered a corporate color and commonly used in business-oriented designs. Blue is also favored by both men and women, in all of its shades. Overall, it is a color with great psychological value.
Different tonalities of blue have different messages. Darker blues are similar to black in that they seem powerful, important and respectable. Lighter blues are associated with summery, fresh sensations, along with the ocean and daytime sky. Medium blues, like the primary color blue, are associated with children, freedom, happiness and positivity.
While the color elicits feelings of calmness and relaxation, ironically, the color is also associated with the expression “feeling blue.”
Our computers and devices constantly shine blue light, keeping us awake late into the night. It has been widely studied how the blue light from our phones can disrupt our circadian rhythms.
A group of scientists conducted a reverse study on the effects of blue-tinted lights in the workplace. The researchers theorized that if blue light from phones can keep people alert at night, then it can also be used to increase productivity during the day.
The study was conducted in an office with blueish and greenish lights in different areas. The employees working in areas with the blue-tinted light were more alert and felt less sleepy than those working under the greenish lights.
Green is the most present color in nature. We will always associate green with trees, plants and leaves. It is not surprising then that green is almost always used in branding that has to do with organic, green or ecological products.
Back in 2000, the movie Shrek came out and Heinz ketchup had the idea of releasing a new product to tie in with the movie craze. Heinz EZ Squirt Ketchup in Blasting Green was a great success, until they went too far and started selling purple, blue and teal-colored ketchup.
One way to understand why this occurred is that green is essentially a natural color. Tomatoes are commonly red, but they can also be green. So when a new green ketchup showed up in supermarkets at the same time the movie "Shrek" was released, all kids wanted it. They associated the color green with Shrek, the friendly ogre, because he appeared in the packaging. The green ketchup was a success, but the follow-up colors were an epic failure and the line was discontinued in 2006.
Why did this happen? Because the association between the color green, Shrek and a natural tomato color made sense. Teal and purple-colored ketchup did not.
Green is the go-to color for all products or services that are associated with the environment, ecology and green energy. In fact, if you are designing for something with “green” values, you should always stick to green.
Green and blue together can also send a message of water, freshness, breeziness and the outdoors.
All in all, it's safe to say that color meanings are not as rigid as we'd like to think. Every color has positive and negative effects and meanings. Some colors differ in their message according to their tonality, while others depend solely on the situation or context.
When choosing colors for a design, it’s best to take into consideration all types of color effects to avoid unintended consequences. Conducting small focus groups to decide on a color scheme can help in this process. With time, your brand may also create its own color effects, so listen carefully to identify both the positive and negative associations being made and adjust accordingly.