Color Psychology in Marketing

By Elise Price


When introduced to Duane Dunston’s You Have A Voice application—created to help government officials bridge language barriers and communicate face-to-face with illegally trafficked persons—I was instantly drawn to the graphic design side of the project. Duane needed a nonintrusive, simple visual design for the currently bare-bones app that would resonate with trafficking victims, and I wanted the job. I may be an aspiring book editor in a publishing class, but my background in traditional art refuses to be ignored when opportunities like this arise.


Although I knew I was better suited for the editorial aspect of the project, my artsy side was left wishing I was more experienced with design.


My publishing team turned instead to graphic design major Jocelyn Sargent to develop a logo, as well as a color and font scheme, for the You Have A Voice application. Because trafficking victims are usually forcibly taken—often from their home countries—and taught to distrust government officials, communication between the two is a very sensitive endeavor.


With this in mind, Jocelyn chose cool shades for the app design to provoke a specific response from users and to stimulate trust between the victims and officials. The palette she produced is more than visually engaging—it appeals to viewers’ psychology, too, by utilizing colors that subconsciously evoke certain emotions.


Color palette by Jocelyn Sargent

I was fascinated by Jocelyn’s results. How did she know which colors to pick? How did she know how to harmonize them in a combination that would make sense?


On her color palette, Jocelyn briefly explains why she settled on these four colors to prominently appear in the app’s design. Cool colors tend to have a calming effect on viewers, and so three of the four colors Jocelyn chose for the app are cool: blue, green, and violet. Yellow, while providing a warm color contrast, was added as the fourth because it suggests happiness and warmth.


The four main colors Jocelyn chose for the You Have A Voice application are intended to help victims who are presented with the app feel calm, safe, and respected. Altogether, these colors where chosen based on color psychology and color theory.


While the veracity of both the psychology and theory of color is sometimes called into question due to individual biases (we all have favorite colors, or maybe memories associated with certain colors), research has found a general correlation in the relationship between colors and the emotions they stir in viewers. The psychological effect of color on human emotions is comprised of two major parts: (1) the effects color has on a visceral, biological level, and (2) the effects color has on a personal level, which is largely dependent on the viewer’s culture.


The autonomic nervous system (the visceral response) reacts directly to the varying wavelengths of colors. “[W]armer colors, such as red and yellow, have long wavelengths, and so more energy is needed to process them as they enter the eye and the brain” (Samara). Because of this increase in energy, these colors are believed to stimulate the viewer, resulting in feeling excitement, friendliness, and warmth. On the other hand, cool colors—like blues, violets, and greens—have shorter wavelengths, requiring less energy and resulting in a more calming effect.


These responses are impulsive, which is why people can generally agree that warm colors stimulate and cool colors placate. Even still, individual experiences can change the emotions people feel when they see these colors.


Personal and cultural experiences tend to have a stronger psychological effect on how we react to color. For example, many cultures associate red with hunger because of its resemblance to meat and blood, yet vegetarians are more likely to feel hungry while looking at green. Similarly, Christian cultures relate black with death and white with purity, whereas Hindu culture associates white, not black, with death (Samara).


These colors are not involuntarily roused, but socially engrained. Examples are everywhere. The popular fast-food chain McDonald’s uses yellow to grab viewers’ attention and make them feel happy, and red is used to stimulate hunger. The evolution of the Apple company logo suggests innovation, whereas the current sleek, silver design brings to mind technology and practicality. Even their products are a minimalist silver, closely relating the corporate logo with the consumer product.


In the same vein, many people correlate the three primary colors with similar emotions because they are reminiscent of nature rather than visceral response: red evokes passion (blood), blue provokes calmness (water), and yellow triggers warmth (sunlight) (Samara).


Everywhere we turn, we see color theory and psychology being employed in marketing. According to the design company Purely Branded, “Up to 93% of consumers said they were most influenced by visual factors when making a buying decision.” Purely Branded even lists what each color is most closely associated with when utilized in marketing. For example, blue is frequently used by banks because it suggests intelligence and security. Purple is seen as the color of royalty, and so it repeatedly appears in association with beauty services and products.

The Color of Marketing, by Purely Branded.

The Color of Marketing, by Purely Branded.

A study done by Joe Hallock shows that regardless of gender and age, blue is the favorite color of the majority whereas orange tends to be the least favorite. When Hallock divided his findings by gender and age, blue remained the favorite across the board. Orange and brown were typically the majority’s least favorite colors, and purple was reportedly least favored by men.


The accessibility of information gathered in studies like Hallock’s makes it simple for companies to market their products to audiences as wide or narrow as they want. Still, some individuals, and even entire companies, continue to market based on preconceived notions of color.


A classic example of using color to market to a specific audience is the use of pink for girls and blue for boys—a social norm that directly resulted from American marketing in the 1940s, when retailers and manufactures interpreted them as American’s preferences (Maglaty). Previously, pink had been seen as the bolder, stronger of the two colors, and so it was ascribed as a masculine color. Girls wore blue, which was thought to be softer and more delicate. White was often used as the gender neutral color.


During the baby boom in the late 1950s, the Lionel Corporation began marketing their famous model train sets to girls, who until then had been advertised simply as admirers of the trains for boys. Their advertising campaign: call it the “Lady Lionel” and change the color of the train set to pink, and accent it with complementing soft pastel colors. Direct wording from the campaign advertised the train including a “pink-frosted steam locomotive”, “robin’s egg blue” and “buttercup yellow” boxcars, as well as other cars in lilac and sky blue. Despite their marketing efforts, the “Lady Lionel” train never sold well because girls wanted the realistic-looking “boy’s” train, not the fantasy pastel locomotive set (Hogan).


Color psychology in advertising permeates all aspects of the consumer market, especially where publishing is involved. The term “don’t judge a book by its cover” is a great analogy for treating all people with respect, but when it actually comes down to it, book covers can make or break a sale. Although book design goes beyond simple color choices, the principal remains the same: the cover needs to grab the consumer’s attention quickly and associate some sort of emotion with the book, otherwise potential readers will overlook it.


The advent of mobile applications has further expanded the relevance of color psychology in advertising. Mobile app developers need to design user-friendly interfaces: ones that are both easy to use and appealing to the eye. Apple Inc.’s current mobile operating system, iOS 8, offers consumers an aesthetically pleasing and cohesive user interface (UI). Developers must meet Apple’s strict guidelines in order to publish an app on iOS. These guidelines dictate everything from the app icon that appears on the mobile home screen, the animations, color, and typography used in the application, and even the terminology and wording displayed in the app (“IOS Human Interface Guidelines: Designing for IOS”).

iOS Human Interface Guidelines: Color and Typography

iOS Human Interface Guidelines: Color and Typography

Apple’s conditions are so specific because (1) the application is a reflection of the company, and therefore must blend well with Apple’s signature look, and (2) the application needs to grab consumers’ attention in order to make money. iOS 8’s simplistic, minimalist approach to UI appeals to all age groups because the vibrant colors used for each app are easily identifiable, almost iconic. The candy-esque look of iOS 8 establishes brand loyalty at a young age because of its appealing colors, whereas older audiences find the user interface bright, the retina display clear, and the home screen easy to navigate.


Although color psychology is often considered subjective, it is still widely practiced as a popular marketing technique. Colors are used to create a desired reaction in viewers. Usually, the anticipated response is to buy the goods or services of a company. Others want viewers to feel a certain way, as with Duane’s application and Jocelyn’s design, which is aimed to cause those who use the app to feel safe and respected in a delicate environment.


Books, apps, websites, company logos—all are made to influence consumers, and are designed with color in mind.


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