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Color psychology: how colors impact human behavior and emotion

Color psychology and how colors impact human behavior

Color can hold an immense amount of power over us. A historical anecdote that undoubtedly illustrates this, is the story of 20th century artist Barnett Newman’s painting, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III. The 18 foot wide painting consists of a thin blue strip on the left-hand-side and a thin yellow strip on the right, while the rest of the canvas is painted a blaring, bright shade of red.

In the 1980s, the piece was displayed at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk art museum. It ended up causing much dispute and vehement reactions amongst its viewers. This conflict came to a peak when a man named Gerard Jan van Bladeren visited the exhibition. He later described feeling overwhelmingly provoked by the painting, its vivid color filling the large canvas. In fact, it had such an intense influence on him that he slashed the canvas with a utility knife, essentially “murdering” the painting.

While this is an extreme example, it’s no secret that color has a huge impact on the human psyche. Intrigue around the subject has led to research on the topic from a psychological perspective, as well as in a cultural and historical context. This innate connection we hold between color and emotion determines many of our decisions on a daily basis, from which brand of flour we’re drawn to at the supermarket, to our choice of color for our living room curtains.

This instinct of ours in relation to color goes deeper than simply preferring one over another; our brains automatically associate certain colors with certain emotions and characteristics. Brands have also picked up on this phenomenon, adopting specific hues to use throughout their visual identities, from their logos to their website design.

Whether you’re currently choosing the perfect color palette for a creative project, renovating your home or are simply intrigued by the complexities of the human mind, read on to discover more. Here’s a look into color psychology and the relationship between individual colors, complementary colors and their meanings:

What is color psychology?

Color psychology is the study of color’s impact on human behavior. It aims to understand why and how different hues affect our feelings, behavior and decision-making processes. It’s used in many fields, from branding and marketing, to interior design, art and more, in an attempt to use color optimally to reach a certain goal.

For example, how would you feel going to sleep in a bedroom filled with pale, neutral colors? Would a room painted in purple walls make you feel more or less relaxed? In the world of button design, are you more inclined to click on a green button or a red one? Did color play a part in the last item of clothing you purchased?

The likelihoods are that you have a strong gut feeling for most, if not all, of the questions above. It’s true that answers may differ from person to person, depending on factors like culture, upbringing, location, age and more. However, some color meanings are more universal. For example, we naturally relate warm colors like red, orange and yellow to warmth and sunshine, whereas cool colors like blue, green and purple tend to be calming and refreshing.

The importance of color psychology in marketing

As colors have such a strong influence on our emotions, they can be used wisely in marketing to convey a specific message to the audience and shape the way a brand is perceived. Implementing the right color scheme is essential in building a distinct brand identity that sets the tone and personality of a company. This is true throughout all of a business’s marketing assets, from the logo design to the website, and any other visual content.

When picking the right hues to reflect your brand, you can of course use an online color palette generator. But without a solid understanding of color psychology and how colors can be used to evoke emotions, you’ll have a tough time making the best choice.

Consider, for example, an ice cream brand. You’d imagine their store’s color palette to be playful, full of either pastel or bright and joyful shades. A dark storefront would set a completely different vibe, possibly suggesting elegance and maturity - an unusual choice for an ice cream brand.

Another example is a yoga instructor’s website. Which hues come to mind? Typical website color schemes for this type of business would involve light or neutral shades like beige, white and pale pink. A stark combination of black and red wouldn’t reflect the tranquility and wellbeing that a yoga teacher may be aiming to express.

Color meanings

While each color can be used in a never-ending range of shades, tints and tones, the psychology of color offers general guidelines that can help with your palette choices. Here’s a list of colors and their meanings:

Blue color psychology

Ranging from teal to navy to indigo and more, the color blue tends to be perceived in different ways depending on the shade. It’s now often used in corporate logos, making its connection to business and especially to the tech industry somewhat inherent in certain areas of the globe. Social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter come to mind, as do other high tech companies like IBM and HP.

The reason it’s become so popular amongst corporations could be to do with the fact that blue is generally seen as reflecting loyalty and stability. It’s also often connected to feelings of tranquility, harmony and calmness, reminding us of the sea and sky. In fact, as part of their World’s Favorite Color survey, paper manufacturer G.F Smith found dark blue to be the most relaxing color in the world.

However, blue also has another side to it; it’s often connected to feelings of depression, hence the term “feeling blue.” Throughout art history, it’s been used by various artists, most notably Picasso, to express a sombre and negative mood in their works.

Blue color psychology

Green color psychology

The color green is widely associated with nature. In color psychology, it’s also often used to symbolize ecology and sustainability, making it a popular choice among brands that want to position themselves as environmentally friendly. It can also relate to growth and freshness.

For example, Spotify’s use of a vibrant shade of green suggests that the company is full of life and vitality. American supermarket chain Whole Foods also use the color, opting for a darker shade that brings across a feeling of the outdoors, suggesting that their products are natural, organic and healthy.

Green color psychology

Yellow color psychology

Yellow is a great color for capturing attention. Our eyes naturally process it first, making it a smart choice for warning signs, reflective vests, ambulances and more. It’s used for the same purposes in nature. For example, a wasp alerts us of its sting through its yellow and black exterior, as does the yellow banded poison dart frog.

However, as well as symbolizing caution, yellow is also very much associated with optimism, sunshine and warmth. These positive connotations to yellow are prevalent around the globe and among many different cultures. This fairly universal perception of yellow could explain the choice to use yellow for emojis. It’s also used in branding to suggest a fun, happy vibe, for example in Burger King’s logo or McDonald’s’ famous Golden Arches.

More recently, a certain shade of the color has been popping up. It’s become such a website color trend that it has even been coined “gen z yellow,” marking it as a fresh, contemporary color. This specific hue can be found throughout popular culture, from fashion design to music videos, graphic design and more, supposedly taking over from the equally popular millennial pink.

Yellow color psychology

Orange color psychology

What came first, orange the color or the fruit? As a color, orange ranges from dark, earthy tones like terracotta, to more pinkish hues like salmon and coral. Generally the color is perceived as positive and cheerful, but certain hues also relate to caution, which is why it’s often used for traffic cones and police vests.

Named after the fruit (in response to the above mentioned question), the color orange naturally exudes a sense of freshness and vitality. Falling under the category of warm colors, it also emits a feeling of heat and summer, while its darker tones are often connected to autumn.

In marketing, orange is often used as a slightly softer alternative to red. It draws attention without being too obtrusive, which is why we can see many call to action examples that make use of the color.

Orange color psychology

Red color psychology

Red is generally seen as an extreme color - in all its meanings. It holds strong connotations to love, desire and seduction, while on the other hand also being associated with feelings of danger, anger and violence. It also evokes a sense of energy and instantly grabs attention, thanks to its high visibility. This makes it an appropriate color for warning signals like stop signs and fire engines.

Different cultures around the globe perceive red in diverse ways. For example, in China’s stock markets, the color red is used to symbolise a price increase, whereas the extreme opposite (the stock going down in price) holds true in many other countries. Why? Because red is a lucky color in Chinese culture, also used for bride’s wedding dresses and to symbolize celebration and fertility.

Red’s bold and powerful presence also makes it the color of choice for many iconic brands, like Coca-Cola and more recently, Netflix. For Coca-Cola, the color red conveys a sense of excitement, energy and youth. In Netflix’s case, their decision to go for red text on a black background creates an elegant cinematic feel that builds anticipation.

Red color psychology

Pink color psychology

While pink has a long history of being perceived as girly and fluffy, this stereotype is gradually fading as more non-traditionally feminine brands make use of the color in their marketing efforts. In color psychology, pink is often associated with playfulness, fun and lightheartedness. Bright shades of pink like magenta or fuschia stand out, while being less alarming or threatening than the color red.

Perhaps the most well-known brand that uses pink in their visual identity is Barbie - a company strongly associated with all things girly. Many other businesses targeting women also opt for pink, such as make-up brand Benefit and Victoria’s Secret.

However, we can also spot the recent surge of pink in tech companies. For example, Invision’s logo is a vivid shade of pink, and the same color is used throughout their branding. The color has been newly embraced in tech for the feeling of energy, youth and excitement that it brings. The same goes for high tech insurance company Lemonade whose color scheme is made up of black, white and a striking shade of hot pink.

Pink color psychology

Purple color psychology

In color psychology, the color purple symbolizes luxury, royalty, nobility and wisdom. It’s also often associated with magic, mystery and the supernatural. This could be due to the fact that purple is a rare color to spot in nature, making it seem somewhat otherworldly.

Purple is quite an unusual color to find in marketing and isn’t used in many big companies. However, Cadbury has been using it in their logo since the beginning of the 20th century, even attempting to own the right to trademark its specific shade (Pantone 2685C). As purple represents luxury, the use of the color suggests that their products are of a high quality. Since Cadbury, additional chocolate brands have adopted purple too, for example Milka and Nestle.

Purple color psychology

Black color psychology

Black has many different color meanings. On the one hand, it is seen as timeless and classic. Think of a sophisticated suit, for example, or the classic “little black dress.” It can evoke elegance, sophistication, power and mystery. But on the other hand, it’s also linked to pessimistic feelings of anger, loneliness and depression, as well as mourning in Western culture.

Black has also caused a stir in the art world, as artist Anish Kapoor acquired exclusive rights to Vantablack - also known as the “blackest black in the world.” The pigment is supposedly so dark that it appears somewhat unreal, absorbing 99.96 percent of light. As a response, artist Stuart Semple developed his own dark pigment, coined Black 2.0.

In marketing, many brands opt for black as their logo’s color of choice. Iconic logos such as those of Nike, Gucci and Adidas were designed in black. As a clean choice that never goes out of style, the color can always be combined with other hues, making it fairly comfortable to work with.

Black color psychology

White color psychology

White is widely seen as reflecting innocence, purity, goodness and rebirth. For many, it symbolizes a clean white canvas, or in other words, a fresh new beginning. It’s a neutral color that enables our eyes to rest, which is why it’s widely used in many fields, from interior design to web design (like the generous amount of white space around this blog post).

Additionally, white also gives off a pristine and hygienic feeling. But you should note that too much of it can create a sense of sterility (picture a dentist’s clinic for example), so unless you’re aiming for a very neutral look, it’s generally recommended to combine it with additional colors and possibly also textures.

In certain cultures, white relates to death and mourning. In Eastern Asia, white clothing is worn during mourning to symbolize rebirth and purity, whereas in Western culture, a bride typically wears a white dress on her wedding day.

White color psychology

Gray color psychology

Being on the scale between black and white, gray is perceived as neutral and balanced. Its lack of color makes it useful, as it can be implemented in cases where many colors are already being used, without causing disruption to the design. Gray can at other times add a sophisticated, modern feel to a well-balanced and contemporary design. Dark gray can also serve as a more toned-down version of black when looking for a less dramatic contrast.

However, gray also has some negative connotations in color psychology. It can appear dull or moody. In design, it’s generally recommended to combine gray with an additional color (be it white, beige or anything else) in order to bring the design to life.

Gray color psychology

Brown color psychology

While brown is not the most inspirational of colors, it can also be used effectively to create an earthy, natural tone. After all, it’s the color of wood, sand, mud and many other elements in nature. This can bring people to perceive brown as warm, comforting, safe and reliable. Light, natural shades of brown, like beige and cream, are often used in hygge interior decor to create an atmosphere that is clean and minimalistic, while also feeling warm and cozy.

When it comes to marketing, brown can be used to craft a sense of trust and stability. Consider for example Louis Vuitton who use brown in their visual identity, giving their brand a classic, timeless air. Many chocolate brands like Godiva, M&M’s and Magnum also opt for brown - a natural choice for their product.

Brown color psychology

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