Boost Brands, Influence Behaviour & Convince Clients
Colour sells. Whether you’re working with a product, service or space, the ‘right’ combinations of colours can influence how someone feels, thinks and behaves – with powerful results.
According to a study by Loyola University Maryland, colour is registered by the brain before either images or typography. The same study found that colour can increase brand recognition by up to 80 per cent.
So why, then, is brand colour so often dictated by the personal preferences of a client or committee? What are the ‘right’ combinations, and how can designers sidestep subjective debates to harness the power of colour more effectively in branding projects?
Colour theory in branding
When it comes to harmonious colour combinations, it helps to know the basics.
But what does it mean in practice? How relevant, really, is traditional colour theory for designers when it comes to branding?
According to Jonny Naismith, creative lead at Moving Brands New York, colour theory can provide a useful starting point when deciding the palette for a new branding project, but there are a lot of other factors involved too. He says.
For us, these types of relationships can help generate ideas – particularly when extending out from a core, identifiable colour.However, in the early stages of projects, we’re often looking for varied points of reference. In a saturated market, it’s becoming harder to truly ‘own’ a colour, so we try to employ far-flung points of references to help surprise or create something memorable and unexpected. This could come from working with real materials, spending time photographing subjects or browsing the local bookshop.
One reason why colour theory, in traditional form, might not be so helpful to the branding process, is the fact that it was originally designed for artists and painters, and lacks the psychological and behavioural insights required for creating a brand that connects.
That’s according to Karen Haller, a leading authority in the field of applied colour psychology.
There’s so much more to colour than the colour wheel. To really understand how to use colour to its full effect, you need to include the psychology of colour: how it influences us on a mental, physical and emotional level.
Haller warns there’s a lot of pop psychology around.
Many people get colour psychology, colour symbolism, and their personal colour association all mixed up together, which is why it’s easy to dismiss colour as being subjective. But they are different things – and it’s important to understand why.
Colour symbolism refers to the use of colour in culture, and the conscious associations we’re conditioned to make. In China, for example, red symbolises good luck, while white often represents death.
In Muslim countries, there are certain products that aren’t designed in green because it represents the prophet Muhammad, but some Islamic banks might use this colour in their logos in order to convey trust.
Personal colour association, meanwhile, relates to the memories or experiences of an individual. “You might like terracotta because you were in Tuscany,” says Haller, “or a certain red because it reminds you of your favourite bike as a child.”
But some of these can be avoided. Unlike the previous two definitions, colour psychology relates to the subconscious way colour can affect how we think, feel and behave.
Individual interpretations of a colour can vary (you might see a certain red as exciting; another person might see it as aggressive), but when psychology is combined with the study of tonal colour groups, reactions can be predicted with surprising accuracy.
The Holy Grail of Colour
In the ’80s, colour psychologist Angela Wright identified links between patterns of colour and patterns of human behaviour. She found that all colours can be classified into one of four tonal groups, and that mathematical relationships underpin the shades and tones within each group. In other words, Wright actually proved objective colour harmony.
Wright went on to develop the Colour Affects System, which identifies links between the four colour groups and four basic personality types, based on original research involving Aristotle, Newton and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Crucially, Wright found that colour schemes drawn from a single group always harmonise, no matter which personality type is interpreting them; while schemes that mix groups create disharmony. In addition, each personality type has a natural affinity with one colour family, meaning that people react even more positively to palettes crafted from ‘their’ colours.
Theoretically, then, if designers can establish which psychological colour family best conveys a brand’s message, it’s possible to create a colour palette that truly engages its audience – as long as every hue used in all brand communication is drawn from that same group.
“There are millions wasted by companies struggling with subjective, endless expensive debates about colour, and it’s usually decided on the basis of rank,” says Wright. “But objective colour harmony is underpinned by mathematics. If you stick within the groups, everyone can understand the message,” she explains.
Ask the Right Questions
So how do you get to a final colour scheme? As with any branding project, it’s about asking the right questions to get to the core of the brand. And if you’re targeting a global audience, will local cultural meanings be ascribed to the colours used – does the palette need to be modified to reflect this?
People have an emotional connection with colour first. Then we take in the shapes, the logo, and we read the words. If we sense a mismatch, it’s the colour we don’t believe, despite the beautifully crafted words.