Color is one of the most important aspects of branding and one of the most often overlooked aspects as well. Even in nature, color means so much; tigers are striped to help them blend in with tall grass, flowers and fruits are colorful to attract animals to help them spread pollen and seeds, and without color, the chameleon is just a weird shaped lizard. These same thoughts can be applied to the use of color in branding, not just in your logo but even down to your cafe décor. In this blog, we’ll take a look at how color can affect the psychology of your customers, your workers, and even the way people perceive your brand.
The first step to understanding color is learning a few color-related terms. All colors can be categorized by their apparent Temperature; are they warm or cool? You may be wondering, how can a color be hot or cold? The answer is that the primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, can be mixed to make virtually every color that we see, but the ratio of each can affect the temperature of the resulting mix. If we take red as an example, a warm red will be closer to orange and a cool red will be closer to a purple or violet. This is important because colors start taking on different meanings as they start changing temperature; that warm red will feel more energetic and aggressive whereas the cooler red will feel more calm or seductive. Another word to learn is Saturation, which is the intensity of the color. If we use red as an example again, a saturated red will have a lot of energy and color in it, but a desaturated red will become more gray and lose its life or energy. If you want to imply something is lifeless or lacking in enthusiasm, you can desaturate the colors and the audience will just feel like the life has been sucked out of the image.
Another concept to talk about is color harmony; why do certain colors work well with each other? The first reason to explore is analogous colors: colors that touch each other on a color wheel. Nearby colors share common colors so they just work well next to each other (for the most part). French Ultramarine, a cool red blue, looks great next to a cool purple because they share similar temperatures and have a uniting blue color. Cerulean blue, a warm yellowish blue, will not match as well with the same purple as above, even though they share a common main color of blue. Another concept is complementary colors: colors that are across from each other on the color wheel. Looking at a more simple version of the wheel, each primary color is across from a secondary color (a color made from mixing 2 primaries) and that is their complement. If you put these colors next to each other, the colors will feel like they vibrate on the page; each color is trying to push the other forward. Complementary colors aren’t usually good to use right off the bat, having a red and green of the same saturation and brightness will just make your image clash (like the posters and designs from the 1960’s) so you’ll have to pick a color that will be the dominant and then edit the other in order to have it appropriately boost the dominant color. You can desaturate, darken, or change the temperature of the colors in order to create the proper contrast that you need. It should also be noted that if you mix 2 complementary colors together, you get a brown-gray that can be matched with either color. There are other color harmonies we could discuss, but these are, for the moment, the most important for the purposes of this blog. If you want to learn more about color harmonies, click here for a quick guide!
The main course of the discussion of color is “what do colors mean?” Color psychology is relative to the region you live in (click here to see a quick break down of colors by region), and because YBC and the blog writer live in the United States, we’ll just take a look at this regions interpretation of color. You can find color charts online that give a bevy of emotions a color can represent, but I’ll try to explain how and why certain colors have multiple and often contradictory meanings.
Red is the hottest primary color and has some of the most varied uses in how we perceive it. Red is a very eye catching color, and is used in our culture to either attract attention or warn of potential danger like in Valentines or in stop signs. We also equate red with violence, it being the color of blood, so red is color we hold close to our hearts literally. Using red can imply anything from love, to pain, to death, but take heart because red is one of the most varied colors in the world, and simply changing its tone, temperature, and saturation can change its meaning. Mix red with white and it softens to pink which we also associate with love, romance, and delicacy.
Orange is a vibrant cousin of red, but it feels more energetic and less imposing than red because of the addition of yellow. Orange is perfect for food related businesses; many safe to eat fruits and vegetables are orange where, in nature, red foods can be either edible or inedible. While the fast food industry adopts red for a lot of their logos, they choose a warm red that edges closer to orange, since that warm color feels more inviting. Orange is a color that we associate with confidence and friendliness, and when used with a professional looking blue, orange can add a hint of playfulness or safety to a company looking to soften its image. Orange can be a bit immature though, so you don’t want to overdo it, unless you’re creating a fun feeling place that maybe doesn’t take itself super seriously.
Yellow is the next primary color, and we associate it with the sun mostly. Its association with the sun makes us see yellow as warm, welcoming, peppy, and happy! Yellow carries many of the same connotations of orange, since both can be associated with food and nature. A warm yellow in a logo will imply a pleasant environment with boundless energy and enthusiasm, and can be very eye catching. Cooler yellows skew towards lemon, so we see these cooler tones as more sour and less easy to accept than their warm counterparts. Also, Yellow can feel a little weak when compared to other colors, and if you use it in a more corporate logo, you may want it to be the secondary color as it might come off a little TOO fancy-free.
Green is the color of earth and nature to most people. If you see green, you see a connection with plants and our eco-system, so green is a great color to use when dealing with ecology. Warm and cool greens can give different impressions of the same feeling, however. A warm (more yellow) green can imply plants and vegetables, so it could be used in food related settings or to imply something more connected to the earth and sunlight. A cool (more blue) green will feel less sunny and a little more clean. The addition of blue into green will start to imply freshness (like mint) so you would want to use this for a cleaning company and not so much in a food setting. We also associate green with money and envy in America, but while envy is less of an issue in logo design, having a green similar to our money color could imply an importance on money in your business which could be good or bad.
Blue, the most complicated of all colors in my opinion, has a lot of connotations which is why it appears in so many logos and designs. Blue is a color we associate with water and sky so it has a strong connection to life and earth. We trust in blue, so we see it as the color of trust and security, which is why blue makes it into so many uniforms and bank logos. Blue, unlike the other two primaries has 3 different colors it can be close to: Yellow, Green, and Red. A more yellow blue brings the warmth and sunshine to blue, giving it a healing tone or implying a bright sunny day. Green blues bring blue some of green’s meaning, like cleanliness. Often you’ll find blues and green blues in cleaning supplies because it implies water and cleanliness. Red blues bring some of the passion and emotion into blue, making it a color with emotional strength. Logos with red blues imply a passion to serve, but with enough power to protect, so red blues will more often make their way into logos where that idea must be conveyed, like at banks or government as mentioned above.
Purple is an interesting color because it rarely appears in nature. Most things that we consider purple, like grapes or flowers, more often than not slant more towards red or blue. Purple, in the times of yore, was a color associated with royalty because it was a hard pigment to acquire. Even today, purple is associated with a sense of regal nobility, so use this color if you want imply a sense of grandioseness or luxury. Purple, on the negative side, can be seen as a bit ostentatious when used too heavily, but used sparingly, purple can add a touch of nobility to your design.
Brown is the color of earth, nature, and food. Brown is an overlooked color in a lot of design schemes because it can be seen as a bit bland or dirty. Brown is a really resilient color that can change its meaning to boost other colors: Mix it with green and you amplify the nature aspect, certain shades of brown with red can make people think of foods like hamburgers and other meats. Of course in the coffee industry brown is an often used color, but finding ways to integrate brown with other colors will help not only tie your business to coffee, but to add in some personal flair that will set you apart from the competition!
Black and white do have strong color connotations, but in the world of design, black and white are best used in the simplified version of a logo. In logo creation, we were taught to make a logo that had a strong design, such that if the logo was printed in all black or in all white on colored stock, it would still be clear what the logo is for. Many professionally designed logos can become single color logos very easily, and that strength allows them to be printed in black or white when needed. Psychologically, we see black as classy, formal, experienced, and efficient, so if your brand needs those feelings, it’s the perfect color to implement. White can imply cleanliness, simplicity, and innocence, so it’s a color for use to imply a fresh start or a something new. This distinction is seen even abroad, where theater and film have used white and black to portray these ideas for centuries.
There are an infinite number of color possibilities when thinking about branding or logo creation. While the world of color is vast and there might be the impulse to use as many colors as possible, restraint is an important tenet to exercise. A strong logo won’t need more than 3 colors, in fact some of the most iconic logos will only have 1-2. Remember that you can always use other colors later on your products to express the other emotions you feel about your product and company, but with logos, your brand, try to limit yourself to the core components of your message. If your business is about luxury coffee, but you love the ocean and your business is set up near one, it may be best to limit your logo to purple and brown, and have the ocean blues be a part of your store’s color scheme. Color is indeed magical, and it’s important to understand how it works before using a color you may like, but doesn’t speak to your business model. If you need a place to start with choosing colors, you can use the Sessions College Color Calculator. You pick your main color and then whatever color relationship you want to build and it will pick colors in the ballpark of what you’re looking for!
Jorge Santiago Jr. is a graphic designer at Your Brand Cafe. He earned his BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Texas at El Paso and his MFA in Sequential Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design. His hair was voted, “Most Likely to Succeed,” and it has. He spends his free time creating sad comics and stories.