Colour Theory №4

Colour & Psychology

R Proffitt
by Richard Proffitt
iopan design

Colour psychology looks at how different colour hues effect human consciousness and behaviour. This is particularly of interest to those involved with marketing and branding. The article that follows will first look at the psychological assosiations different colours have; then a little deeper into marketing and research of colour that influences consumers decisions.

It is important to remember that the study of colour psychology isn't suggesting that certain colours mean the same things to all people. Gender, age, culture and personal preference (to name a few variables) all influence how colours are percieved. So with the list of assosiations that follows bare in mind that this is just a broad brushstroke and is intended as a general guide. If you are interested in how other cultures percieve colours then take a look at the article: Cultural Diversity and the Interpretation of Colour.

Colour Associations

The following list contains twelve colours and their representative meanings, correspondencies and associations. As mentioned above, this list is more general than diffinative and at times, meanings of colours can be contradictory (especially when viewed with a global perspective).

colour meanings
Three Positive Words

Here is a simple way to remember the meanings of colours. Each colour in the diagram has three words you can use to assosiate it with. For RED: Stimulating, Vibrant, Passionate. ORANGE: Energy, Enthusiasm, Fun. YELLOW: Friendly, Cheerful, Warm. PINK: Calm, Loving, Feminine. GREEN: Natural, Healthy, Peaceful. BLUE: Trustworthy, Secure, Responsible. PURPLE: Successful, Wise, Royal. BROWN: Earthy, Reliable, Dependable. WHITE: Pure, Innocent, Practical. BLACK: Exclusive, Prestigious, Deluxe.

three shades of red


Red is the colour of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love.

Red is a very emotionally intense colour. It enhances human metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure. It has very high visibility, which is why stop signs, stoplights, and fire equipment are usually painted red. In heraldry, red is used to indicate courage. It is a colour found in many national flags.

Red brings text and images to the foreground. Use it as an accent colour to stimulate people to make quick decisions; it is a perfect colour for 'Buy Now' or 'Click Here' buttons on Internet banners and websites. In advertising, red is often used to evoke erotic feelings (red lips, red nails, red-light districts, 'Lady in Red', etc). Red is widely used to indicate danger (high voltage signs, traffic lights). This colour is also commonly associated with energy, so you can use it when promoting energy drinks, games, cars, items related to sports and high physical activity.

three shades of pink


  • Pink : Romance, love, friendship, femininity, truth, passivity, good will, emotional healing, peace, calming, affection, emotional maturity, caring, nurturing, sweet tasting, sweet smelling, ethereal, delicacy.
  • Pale pink : sweetness of youth, fragility
  • Vibrant pinks : high spirits, energy, youth

three shades of orange


Orange combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It is associated with joy, sunshine, and the tropics. Orange represents enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, creativity, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, and stimulation.

To the human eye, orange is a very hot colour, so it gives the sensation of heat. Nevertheless, orange is not as aggressive as red. Orange increases oxygen supply to the brain, produces an invigorating effect, and stimulates mental activity. It is highly accepted among young people. As a citrus colour, orange is associated with healthy food and stimulates appetite. Orange is the colour of fall and harvest. In heraldry, orange is symbolic of strength and endurance.

Orange has very high visibility, so you can use it to catch attention and highlight the most important elements of your design. Orange is very effective for promoting food products and toys.

three shades of yellow


Yellow is the colour of sunshine. It's associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy.

Yellow produces a warming effect, arouses cheerfulness, stimulates mental activity, and generates muscle energy. Yellow is often associated with food. Bright, pure yellow is an attention getter, which is the reason taxicabs are painted this colour. When overused, yellow may have a disturbing effect; it is known that babies cry more in yellow rooms. Yellow is seen before other colours when placed against black; this combination is often used to issue a warning. In heraldry, yellow indicates honor and loyalty. Later the meaning of yellow was connected with cowardice.

Use yellow to evoke pleasant, cheerful feelings. You can choose yellow to promote children's products and items related to leisure. Yellow is very effective for attracting attention, so use it to highlight the most important elements of your design. Men usually perceive yellow as a very lighthearted, 'childish' colour, so it is not recommended to use yellow when selling prestigious, expensive products to men – nobody will buy a yellow business suit or a yellow Mercedes. Yellow is an unstable and spontaneous colour, so avoid using yellow if you want to suggest stability and safety. Light yellow tends to disappear into white, so it usually needs a dark colour to highlight it. Shades of yellow are visually unappealing because they loose cheerfulness and become sickly.

three shades of green


Green is the colour of nature. It symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility. Green has strong emotional correspondence with safety. Dark green is also commonly associated with money.

Green has great healing power. It is the most restful colour for the human eye; it can improve vision. Green suggests stability and endurance. Sometimes green denotes lack of experience; for example, a 'greenhorn' is a novice. In heraldry, green indicates growth and hope. Green, as opposed to red, means safety; it is the colour of free passage in road traffic.

Use green to indicate safety when advertising drugs and medical products. Green is directly related to nature, so you can use it to promote 'green' products. Dull, darker green is commonly associated with money, the financial world, banking, and Wall Street.

three shades of blue


Blue is the colour of the sky and sea. It is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven.

Blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It slows human metabolism and produces a calming effect. Blue is strongly associated with tranquility and calmness. In heraldry, blue is used to symbolize piety and sincerity.

You can use blue to promote products and services related to cleanliness (water purification filters, cleaning liquids, vodka), air and sky (airlines, airports, air conditioners), water and sea (sea voyages, mineral water). As opposed to emotionally warm colours like red, orange, and yellow; blue is linked to consciousness and intellect. Use blue to suggest precision when promoting high-tech products.

Blue is a masculine colour; according to studies, it is highly accepted among males. Dark blue is associated with depth, expertise, and stability; it is a preferred colour for corporate America.

Avoid using blue when promoting food and cooking, because blue suppresses appetite.

three shades of purple


Purple combines the stability of blue and the energy of red. Purple is associated with royalty. It symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition. It conveys wealth and extravagance. Purple is associated with wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery, and magic.

According to surveys, almost 75 percent of pre-adolescent children prefer purple to all other colours. Purple is a very rare colour in nature; some people consider it to be artificial.

Light purple is a good choice for a feminine design. You can use bright purple when promoting children's products.

three tinted whites


White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity. It is considered to be the colour of perfection.

White means safety, purity, and cleanliness. As opposed to black, white usually has a positive connotation. White can represent a successful beginning. In heraldry, white depicts faith and purity.

In advertising, white is associated with coolness and cleanliness because it's the colour of snow. You can use white to suggest simplicity in high-tech products. White is an appropriate colour for charitable organizations; angels are usually imagined wearing white clothes. White is associated with hospitals, doctors, and sterility, so you can use white to suggest safety when promoting medical products. White is often associated with low weight, low-fat food, and dairy products.

three tones of black


Black is associated with power, elegance, formality, death, evil, and mystery.

Black is a mysterious colour associated with fear and the unknown (black holes). It usually has a negative connotation (blacklist, black humor, 'black death'). Black denotes strength and authority; it is considered to be a very formal, elegant, and prestigious colour (black tie, black Mercedes). In heraldry, black is the symbol of grief.

Black gives the feeling of perspective and depth, but a black background diminishes readability. A black suit or dress can make you look thinner. When designing for a gallery of art or photography, you can use a black or gray background to make the other colours stand out. Black contrasts well with bright colours. Combined with red or orange – other very powerful colours – black gives a very aggressive colour scheme.

three tones of grey


The colour gray is an unemotional colour. It is detached, neutral, impartial and indecisive - the fence-sitter. From a colour psychology perspective, gray is the colour of compromise - being neither black nor white, it is the transition between two non-colours. The closer gray gets to black, the more dramatic and mysterious it becomes. The closer it gets to silver or white, the more illuminating and lively it becomes. Being both motionless and emotionless, gray is solid and stable, creating a sense of calm and composure, relief from a chaotic world.

The colour gray is subdued, quiet and reserved. It does not stimulate, energize, rejuvenate or excite. In the meaning of colours, gray is conservative, boring, drab and depressing on the one hand and elegant and formal on the other, yet never glamorous. Gray conforms - it is conventional, dependable and practical. It is a colour of maturity and responsibility, associated with the gray hair of old age. It will never be the centre of attention, the dynamic leader or the director - it is too safe and toned down.

It can stifle and depress energy but it is also the stable base from which the new and positive can come. Gray is controlled. It has a steadying effect on other colours with which it comes into contact, toning down the stronger and brighter colours and illuminating the softer colours. Rarely is gray a perfect mix of black and white - it often has elements of other colours such as blue, green, pink, mauve or yellow within it which lift it and energize it. Too much of the colour gray creates sadness and depression and a tendency to loneliness and isolation. Add some colour to change this. Most people are indifferent to gray- it relates to the corporate worker in the gray suit - conservative, reliable, formal and independent and maybe boring.

three shades of brown


The colour brown is a warm colour that stimulates the appetite. While it is sometimes considered dull, it also represents steadfastness, simplicity, friendliness, dependability, and health. The colour brown affects the mind and body by creating feelings of wholesomeness, stability, and peace.

three shades of gold


The colour gold is the colour of success, achievement and triumph. Associated with abundance and prosperity, luxury and quality, prestige and sophistication, value and elegance, the psychology of this colour implies affluence, material wealth and extravagance. Gold in its physical state, by its very nature, denotes wealth and prestige in every country, culture and market in the world today - it is probably the most valuable and easily traded commodity available in the global market place. This colour is linked to masculine energy and the power of the sun, compared to silver which is associated with feminine energy and the sensitivity of the moon. Optimistic and positive, gold adds richness and warmth to everything with which it is associated - it illuminates and enhances other things around it.

At the uppermost level, this is a colour which is associated with higher ideals, wisdom, understanding and enlightenment. It inspires knowledge, spirituality and a deep understanding of the self and the soul.

In the meaning of colours, gold is generous and giving, compassionate and loving, the benefactor or patron, sharing its wisdom, knowledge and wealth with others. Gold is the colour of the winner - first place medals are always in gold, silver is second place. Confident, passionate and eye-catching, gold draws attention to itself. Gold is a warm colour that can be shiny, glistening and happy as well as dull, muted and traditional. The brighter shades of gold catch the eye with their brilliance while the darker muted shades are deep, warm and intense. Gold has long been associated with royalty throughout the world, along with purple.


Colour & Marketing Tips

colour evokes similar emotional responses in most people. However, there aren’t always universal truths about colour. People of different cultures may have different thoughts and emotions about certain colours. Despite the exceptions, there are some basic generalities about how certain colours evoke specific emotional and behavioral responses.

Green Sparks Creativity

Research has linked green with broader thinking and more creative thought. People generally like green. So if you want your employees to be more productive, consider painting work areas green.

Red Reduces Analytical Thinking

When humans see the colour red, their reactions become faster and more forceful. However, that boost of energy is likely to be short-lived and ultimately, red reduces analytical thinking. Athletes are more likely to lose when they compete against an opponent wearing red and students exposed to red before a test are likely to perform worse. Red can be helpful if you’re trying to attract a mate, but it isn’t helpful if you need to stay on task.

Blue is Most Accepted

When asked what their favorite colour is, the most common answer around the world is blue. Painting a common area of an office building blue is likely to satisfy the majority of people.

Yellow isn’t Usually a Hit

Most people aren’t a fan of the colour yellow. However, the people who do like yellow, seem to have a huge preference for it, whereas most people only slightly favor one colour over another. Overall, yellow remains the least likely favorite colour for most people, so pick a different colour if you want to appeal to the masses.

Orange is Associated with Good Value

Customers associate orange with low cost goods. Some high-end retailers have been able to overcome this association with orange and they’ve successfully incorporated orange into their brand. Physiologically, orange vitalizes, inspires and creates enthusiasm. It is stimulating to the appetite and social conversation and therefore works well in restaurants and other food outlets.

Pink Calms People Down

This could be a great colour for lawyers who are conducting mediation or a board room where conversations may get heated.

White May Lead to Boredom

White has a modern appeal. Apple, for example, has used white to brand their clean, sleek look. However, too much of a monochromatic look can cause people to reflect on their own thoughts. A person shopping in a monochromatic store may become distracted from the task at-hand when their mind begins to wander because of the lack of stimulation.

Turquoise for Communication

Psychologically, turquoise represents clarity of thought and communication. It inspires self-expression, encouraging people to tune into their own needs. Physiologically, turquoise calms the emotions and recharges the spirit, invigorating depleted energy levels and inspiring positive thought.

Indigo conveys Integrity and Sincerity

Indigo stimulates creativity and intuition. While it is connected to structure, tradition, ritual and ceremony, it can also transform people's thinking and beliefs into developing new insights and a pioneering spirit. Physiologically, it helps broaden the mind and free it of fears and inhibitions.

Purple suggests Wealth and Extravagance

Purple lends itself to fantasy and the world of dreams. It enhances spiritual pursuits and enlightenment. It is often used to denote a high quality or superior product. If you are in a service business, use some purple in your marketing to denote your premium service.

Further Reading

There is a wealth of information regarding the meaning of colour and it's use in advertising and marketing, both online and in print. Here are just a few suggestions if you wish to broaden your understanding:

So there we have some resources that'll get you started on your colour psychology mission.❧