The Importance of Colour in Design
Because it’s more important than what you like personally.
If we asked you what your favourite colour is, you’re more likely to say blue than any other colour in the world. Fact.
A study by Maryland University and another by Dulux paints found that 42% of men and 29% of women say that blue is their favourite colour. Purple is women’s second favourite (27%), but for men, it’s not even close.
Whatever your favourite colour is (it’s blue, isn’t it?), it doesn’t necessarily make it the best colour to use for your business. Colour is an incredibly important element of design and each one is linked to particular emotions and unconscious biases that are deep-rooted in the human brain. The colours used in design can hugely influence how the audience feels when they look at it so we’re here to help you choose the right ones for your message.
Did you know that the human eye can see ten million? Yes, TEN MILLION shades of colour. However, they all stem from 11 main colours, and because 10,000,000 might make for some heavy reading, we’ll just stick with these 11. And what better place to start than with your favourite (statistically speaking)…
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Blue is a primary colour and also sits in the cold colour category. Overall it’s a colour that makes us feel comfortable and secure, but different shades evoke different feelings. Darker blues lend themselves to a responsible, dependable and trusted stance, making them great for professional businesses in the corporate domain. Whereas lighter blues are good for situations where you want to be seen as more approachable and relaxed yet still professional. Blue is also a colour that lends itself to a clinical setting as it’s a very sterile colour (think NHS). It’s not one that you’d want to use in the food industry, however, since it’s been found to be an appetite suppressant.
One incredibly interesting thing about blue is that it may be a powerful tool in the prevention of suicide. Japan had been experiencing an increasing rate of suicides by people jumping in front of trains. After fitting blue lights at 71 stations between 2000 and 2010, they saw an incredible 84% decrease in suicides at the stations.
Research has shown that people are more productive in blue rooms. So you may want to get the decorators into your office if you need a productivity boost.
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There’s nothing subtle about yellow. It’s another one of the three core primary colours and it sits in the warm colour group. It is the lightest hue on the colour spectrum and is associated with fun, enthusiasm, creativity, originality, confidence, new ideas and optimism. Yellow is a great colour to use to grab attention, and when mixed with black it’s one of the most impactful colour combinations. Which is largely why you see that combination on warning items such as hazard tape.
Did you know that taxi’s across many countries in the world are yellow thanks to taxi entrepreneur John D. Hertz? It’s reported that he painted his taxi’s yellow based on a study by the University of Chicago which found that yellow is the easiest colour to see at distance.
Too much pure, vivid yellow can irritate the eye so use it sparingly. If you want to use yellow in large areas use a hue that has some red mixed in to soften it.
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Red is the last of the three primary colours and also sits in the warm colour category alongside yellow. Colours in the warm category are often used by charities to help uplift the viewer’s emotions where the subject matter could make them feel down. Red engages very strong emotions on both sides, such as love and danger. Thanks to this it’s important to make sure you use red carefully to make sure you evoke the emotion you’re aiming for. Using a lighter tone gives red a softer, more feminine feel, and it can also be toned down by combining it with neutral and cooler tones. In it’s purest form red portrays strength and power. Like pure yellow, it’s best to use pure red sparingly.
While we’re on the subject of red, don’t worry if you’re in a red coat and you happen to be walking through a field and spot a bull standing not too far away. Despite the fact that matadors use a red cape in the so-called ‘sport’ of bullfighting, it’s not the colour that enrages the bull, it’s the movement. Sadly the real reason the matadors use a red cape is to hide the blood. So as long as you don’t start swishing this way and that, the bull in the field will leave you be.
“When I was younger I remember my nan telling me red and green should never be seen other than at Christmas”
Well, Nan was right. The association is too deeply embedded into our minds so it’s best to avoid this combination for that reason, except at Christmas. As well as the fact that it’s a very hard colour combination for people with visual impairments.
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You probably won’t be surprised when we tell you that green is the colour we most see in the natural world. It’s a secondary colour and another that sits in the cold colour category. It holds a lot of the same calming properties that blue alludes. However, it also has the invigorating and energising properties of yellow, the difference being the shades of green you use. Darker greens have more blue in them so are more in line with brands that want to portray dependability, stability and prosperity. Whereas lighter greens have more yellow and are perfect for businesses who want to appear fresh, vibrant and portray growth. Green is a very flexible colour and can be used successfully across the health, finance and food industries.
Interestingly green is used in night vision goggles as our eyes can pick out more shades of green than any other colour.
Like vivid yellow, neon shades of green are bold and eye-catching but quickly tire and irritate the eye. So use it sparingly.
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Purple is another secondary colour that sits in the cold category. It’s also the colour most closely associated with creativity, high quality and wealth. Lighter shades of purple evoke feelings of serenity and calm. Darker tones of purple are used to create a feeling of luxury and decadence, particularly when combined with gold. Purple is widely used across the beauty industry thanks to it being the second favourite colour for women.
Did you know that Dominica is the only nation in the world that uses purple in its national flag? And that ‘Tyrian’ purple has been associated with royalty since it was first used as a fabric dye in 1200BC.
It was made with mucus from tropical sea snails called Murex. They needed to boil thousands of snails in lead vats to make the dye which was incredibly labour intensive. Meaning it was a very expensive dye to make, in turn making it something favoured by royalty at the time.
Whilst there isn’t a cruelty-free way to make this particular shade of purple there are lots of other shades available to ensure that your next print project is cruelty-free.
Purple is the hardest colour for the human eye to distinguish so ensure you don’t use it next to a similar colour or tone otherwise your design elements will get lost. To be honest though, that tip stands for any colour you use.
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Orange is the last of the secondary colours and also sits in the warm category. Orange is good for evoking feelings of playfulness, health, youth, enthusiasm and adventure. And due to this, it helps to create a less corporate feel when used in branding and marketing. Orange is good if you want your product or brand to stand out as it’s not a colour that consumers generally expect to see and it’s also not a colour that is widely used across most sectors. It’s been found to be an appetite, energy and conversation stimulant so is good to use in the food and restaurant industries.
We also have to rock your world here for a second… ‘black box’ flight recorders are in fact orange to make them easy to find. They also aren’t boxes but are a cylindrical device mounted onto two large bits of metal.
If you’re not keen on going bold with orange then it’s a great colour to use for call to action accents due to its high visibility. Pair it with its contrasting versions of blue and purple and it will pop out from your design.
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Pink is most closely related to feelings of love, romance, compassion and femininity. It triggers feelings of calm in the body and reduces feelings of anger, aggression and anxiety. It’s more commonly used in the cosmetics, fashion and beauty industries that focus on the female market, with different shades used for different age ranges. Bold bright tones are most associated with the pre-teen and teenage markets, with dusty and soft pinks being associated with the infant and adult women’s markets.
Thanks to its power to physiologically calm us, pink has been used to paint the walls of some prisons and mental health facilities to help control violent behaviour.
When using colour for an international product it’s always good to look into whether that colour has different connotations in your market. For example, in the west we associate pink with being feminine, however, in other cultures such as Japan it’s associated with being masculine.
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Like the colour green, brown is most closely related to nature. It evokes feelings of stability, security, strength, practicality and being outdoors, and is generally used more in the men’s, agricultural and outdoors markets. It’s a very reserved, down to earth colour which means it’s great to use if you want to exude feelings of being well established, traditional and dependable.
We’re sure you’ll know this from your art classes in school, but brown is created by blending all of the colours, and that’s why you don’t see brown in a rainbow. Rainbows are visible when all of the primary and secondary colours in the spectrum are separated by a prism (water).
If you want to achieve the strength of black but don’t want your design to feel cold then a dark brown will give you the impact you’re after but with some added warmth.
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Grey is a conservative, neutral colour which doesn’t evoke any strong positive or negative feelings. It’s at it’s best when combined with other bolder colours to enhance feelings of security and dependability, to tone down high energy colours, or to pull a colour scheme together. It’s a colour we associate with wisdom so is perfect for businesses that offer professional advice and services such as solicitors and financial advisors.
Have you heard of eigengrau? If not, you’ll have seen it. Eigengrau is the name experts have given to the dark grey colour we see when there is no light. Which means you now need to learn how to pronounce it as you can no longer say that a room is pitch black when you turn the lights off.
When combined with blue, grey will help give a design a feeling of trust and reliability.
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The most neutral of all neutrals, white shouts minimalism, simplicity and purity. It’s used mainly as a backdrop to other design elements, but can be used to create accents and highlight elements of a predominantly dark design. Due to its neutrality, it works well across all industries and design applications, either as a central piece of the design or as a supporting element.
Like pink, white is also a colour that can have very different meanings in different cultures. In the West we most commonly associate white with weddings, however in East Asia white is the colour of mourning clothes.
White/empty space sells. Don’t feel like you have to fill every part of your design with text, images and graphics. Leaving space around key elements helps a viewer to focus in on the important bits and absorb your message easily.
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You can argue that black isn’t a colour at all and this depends on the colour theory you look at. The additive colour theory is where we see colour as light. If there’s no light, there’s no colour and therefore we see black. With the subtractive colour theory, we see colours as pigment e.g. paints. In this case, black is a colour as it’s created using pigments from items such as charcoal and iron metals.
Black evokes feelings of sophistication, strength, elegance, power and mystery. It’s not a colour that is often used as anything more than an accent due to how strong and bold it is. When used extensively across a design you have to be careful with what you pair it with as it can be intimidating. Black is a good colour to use for businesses selling high-quality products and services when paired with the right accents.
Black packaging makes an item seem heavier and more expensive, making it a great tool to create a higher perceived value.
And that is your crash course in the importance of colour in design.
It’s an incredibly large subject, and in reality we could have written an article on each colour alone (maybe we will in the future). Our parting tip is this, don’t make colour decisions based on your personal preference. It’s an easy thing to do, but can dilute and confuse the message you’re trying to convey to your audience. Treat your colours as a key part of your marketing tool kit and make them work for you.
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