Topic 1: Communicating With Colour

Topic 1: Communicating With Colour

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Colour is expressive, colour can be fun.

Colour can be used to trigger emotional responses and studying colour is a form of psychology—a science of its own that is increasingly applied to design and marketing.

But why?

Fundamental to design and often based on personal preference, colour has evolved throughout history to have associations that are embedded in the human psyche to evoke varying responses.

Perception of colours is influenced by psychology and cultural background, which in turn have developed symbolic associations and meanings that vary with time.

Today, green represents the environment, whereas in early times it was associated with paganism and the 19th century, green represented poison.

In some cultures green is sacred and/or represents fertility.

Westernised society has black as a colour of mourning, while in India and China white is the colour of mourning.

We associate red with danger and a warning to stop. We look for red postal boxes and stop at red traffic lights.

Red can set the heart racing and is often associated with passion.

We use colour to describe emotions, and sometimes we feel ‘blue’.

Humour is ‘black’ or ‘dark’. Someone is ‘red’ with embarrassment, ‘purple’ with rage, ‘green’ with envy, or ‘pink’ in politics.

Choosing Colours

I’m sure you have all seen a colour wheel. The invention of the colour wheel has been attributed to Issac Newton in the late 1660s when he began to play with prisms and arrange colour into the circular format that we are so familiar with today. Since then, colour has been studied in depth. The colour wheel combines mixes of two of the three primary colours—red, yellow and blue—to make secondary colours to produce orange, green and violet.

fig-1-the-colour-wheelAdditional tertiary colours are made by combining the primary colour with the nearest secondary colour on the wheel, resulting in red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet.
See Fig. 1 The Colour Wheel

In simple terms, choosing colours on the colour wheel can be done by:
  • Choosing opposites. These are considered to be complementary colours. E.G. Red and green
  • Use analogous colours, that is choose a colour on the colour wheel that is next to the colour that you are choosing. E.G. If you choose blue, then the analogous colours would be blue/green and blue/violet.
  • Use triad colours. Choose a colour on the wheel and then draw an equilateral triangle to find the two other colours. There will be 3 colours in between, so if you choose red-violet (berry) then your other colours would be yellow-orange and blue-green.
    Adobe CC Color Wheel

    Adobe offers a relatively easy way of selecting colours on their Color Wheel, which you may access and play online with here:

More Colour Terminology

Hue is the pure colour which defines a colour e.g. red.

Tone or value refers to the range of colour variations or intensity of the hue, from light to dark.

On computers, tonal range is given as a percentage—90 % is almost full value, while 10 % is very pale.

fig-2-colours-tintsA colour with added white is called a tint and with added black is called a shade.

Without tonal percentage, the colour is said to be solid and intensity of colours within a colour range is saturation, chroma or intensity.

Saturation ranges from brightness to greyness. See Fig. 2

Colour heat or temperature is influenced by presence of yellow and red in the mix. For example, in warmer colours, as the proportion of red increases and yellow decreases, the colour appears to be ‘hotter’, while yellow added to cool colour blue makes it greener and therefore ‘warmer‘.

As previously mentioned, complementary colours are colours lying opposite on the colour wheel and provide contrast e.g. purple and yellow, blue and gold, red and green, while analgous or associated colours are adjacent on the colour wheel and provide harmony e.g. blue and green.

As per the infamous words attributed to renowned Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, ‘All colours are the friends of their neighbours and the lovers of their opposites‘.

A monotone scheme is where a single colour is used for subtle effect with a little contrast achieved by using tints of that colour.

The Language and Emotions of Colour
Psychology – What Do Colours Mean?

Colours have been categorised according to the responses they trigger.

There are the ‘warm’ colours—the reds, oranges and yellows, which are up-beat and stimulate the senses; there are the ‘cool’ colours—the blues and greens, which are relaxing and soothing.

Reds jump out at us whereas blues recede.

Colour hues or intensities can be used to create moods. Sepia is olde worlde, soft and muted colours warm and fuzzy, pastels are soothing, dark is mysterious, and bright is dynamic and creates movement.

Now let’s look at colour associations.

Warm Colours

reds• Red. Associated with fire and danger, red is stimulating and aggressive, cheerful, inviting, exciting and provocative. Positive associations are love (red roses), sexiness (think of the ‘siren’ of the screen dressed in red), lavishness and fame (the ‘red’ carpet) and Christmas (Santa Claus).

Negatives include the devil, debt (‘in the red’), revolution (the ‘red’ flag) and bureaucracy (‘red tape’).

Reds range from the reds blended with yellow to make fiery, sporty tomato red to the cool blue-red tone of the more subdued and refined burgundies. Fiery reds are more provocative whereas cooler reds represent elegance. Reds are used frequently in corporate logos, and on packaging to make it ‘jump out’ from the shelf.pinks

• Pink. Pink is generally seen as romantic, youthful, feminine, happy and sweet. Pink hues are seen as faddish and as they don’t age as well as red and are best used in less expensive products such as toys.

Hot pinks have the same energy and intensity as mother red and are seen as fun, vampish, youthful and energetic.

Vibrant pinks are used within the cosmetics industry to create voluptuous auras, while paler pinks are seen as soft and sweet, romantic, feminine and sweet tasting. Pinks, therefore are used on feminine pampering and cosmetic products.

• Orange. Not generally taken seriously, but seen as inviting, energising, cheerful, friendly and vital, orange is recognised as one of the hottest colours.

It is also considered to be an appetite stimulant.

Orange ranges from the loud and jarring but eye-catching fluoros to softer and nurturing peaches and apricots.

Its appetite appeal means that orange is frequently found in varying shades on food packaging and advertising.

• Yellow. The colour of happiness, yellow represents cheerfulness, lightness, sunniness, warmth, prosperity (gold) and hope.

It is also linked with illness (jaundice), and cowardice (‘yellow’).

Yellow usually jumps out at us, particularly when combined with black, a colour combination which screams out for attention and gets it because of its combined power and ancient association with predators. Yellow therefore also works well on packaging.

brownsYellow can be harder to read though, so we always advise students not to use yellow on text.

• Brown. Wholesome, rich, rustic, earthy, durable and protective, brown is ultimately associated with hearth, home and stability.

Brown tones are particularly popular during cost-conscious periods and have enjoyed a recent resurgence attributed to the popularity of brewed designer coffees and rich, earthy designer interiors.

Brown is associated with earthy, wholesome, organic and healthy foods and good taste, as well as rich chocolate.

Cool Colours

• Blue. Blue is dependable, cool, quiet, serene and constant and represents spirituality in some cultures. It is associated with the sky, water, brightness and detachment, peace and distance. It is also seen as soothing and replenishing.

Inspiring confidence and considered as dependable, blue is used extensively on corporate Identities, packaging and products and websites.

Darker blues bluesoffer power and authority—hence blue police uniforms.

Brilliant blues are dynamic and dramatic, and aqua is always a popular shade of blue.

Not usually associated with food, blue is not traditionally used on food packaging, but due to its association with clean, clear water, blue is now found on designer water labels.

Anecdotal information indicates that blue is a great selling colour when applied to real estate. Apparently blue houses, or houses with blue rooms sell well.

There are many negative associations with blue include depression, cold and introversion.

greens• Green. Green is associated with nature, the environment, youth, spring and renewal. It is seen as soothing, healing and calming.

Deep greens are seen as stately, prestigious and safe, emeralds as elegant, while the more yellow greens are associated with plants.

Because adults usually react negatively to the strong limes and intense yellow-greens, teenagers and kids love them.

Negative associations include: envy, nausea, poison and decay. Varying shades and intensities of green work well on packaging of all types.

Other Colours

purples• Purple. A mix of red and blue and seen as regal, spiritual, sensual, mysterious and elegant, purple is usually embraced by creative and eccentric types.

Perhaps under-used in packaging design, purple’s intensity represents cutting-edge style.

Deep purples represent richness, while softer lilacs offer refinement and delicacy. Grape and purplish berry shades are associated with the rich sweetness of those fruits.

• Neutrals. Timeless, classy, natural and quiet, neutral shades send a message of dependability.

Identified with the durability of ancient buildings, temples and monuments, they are seen as enduring, classic and solid, safe and non-dating.

Tones can have warm or cool undertones. Charcoal is softer than solid black and silver-greys create a techo and futuristic aura.

• White. White is pure, bright, lightweight, pristine and innocent.

White gives simplicity and contrast to signage and pages, but requires embellishment with another colour or strong graphics to avoid starkness. Thus white is often used to separate polar opposite colours and provide balance to a colour scheme.

There are many different types of whites, there are warm whites that have a hint of red (pinky white) or cool whites with a hint of blue or grey.

Off-whites with a tinge of yellow can be warmer and creamy and provide deliciously rich results.

You will quickly find out how many shades of whites there are if you go to a paint shop for a tin of white wall paint. There are heaps of whites to choose from.

• Black. Black is powerful, mysterious, elegant, classic and sophisticated. It conveys a message of strength and solidarity and in combination with white, reflects strength and clarity, power and purity.

As with white, black is often used to separate opposing colours on the colour wheel and provide the stage on which strong colours may perform, making a bold visual statement and ensuring that whatever it is applied to stands out.

Artists such as Henri Matisse are acclaimed for their use of colour, and under closer scrutiny found to be masters at balancing their paintings by mixing in some black.

See more on the psychology of Color here on Pinterest

Example 1 and Example 2


The colour module then delves further into colour and subsequent topics deal with applying colour for impact, challenges associated with colour choice, and keeping up with colour trends.

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