Choose the right color for your design

In this article we will address one of my favorite topics, which is looking at how colors unconsciously shape many aspects of our daily lives, a study which is used rigorously in advertising and graphic design, both print and online.

Furthermore, I will guide you in choosing the right colors and color arrangements for any type of graphic project. So, which arrangements should one avoid at all costs? And which are the ones considered “chromatically correct” arrangements? Let’s find out.

To begin with, science teaches us that color is nothing more than a visual elaboration generated from the nervous signals of the retina’s photoreceptors which are transmitted to the brain. In our case, we will not be elaborating on this concept, as it is beyond our scope and competency. Rather, we will look at something that I find much more interesting and stimulating.

Visual perception of seeing is generated entirely from our brain and as such it is able to condition certain emotional responses and different psychological tendencies. The study of this phenomenon, which shares an affinity with neurophysiology, is aptly named the “psychology of color”.

What does the psychology of color refer to?

Color is a sensation that is transmitted to the brain; this creates an effect on our body and especially on our own psychological attitude.

Our own “personal chromatic palette” is created based on our ability to perceive external colors and on the emotional ties we unconsciously place on each color. This process of associating a certain emotion to a specific color is based on our own personal experience as well as on the specific cultural nexus in which we live.

Some examples

Generally speaking, warm colors (yellow, orange, red) are stimulating and positive, but they can also be perceived as too impetuous and direct. Grey, black, brown, and white are elegant but passive colors: cold and detached, they are often associated to certain sensations and situations that are negative or undesirable. Subtle colors, such as pastel colors, are both reassuring and inspiring confidence. The same thing can be said for green and light blue.

Chromotherapy is a method based on these set of concepts. It is an interesting and controversial discipline which is based on the same principles that determine an individual’s color selection of clothes according to his or her state of mind.
According to chromotherapy, colors help the mind and body return to a sense of equilibrium.And chromotherapy can help stimulate the body and even cure it from certain pathologies by the physical and psychological effects created by these colors.

What does this have to do with advertising and graphic design?

It is known that emotions are intimately tied with the appeal of a certain product over another; these emotions can be evoked through the use of various visual elements, colors included.
For instance, red and orange are known for being colors which are intense and full of emotion, that can increase a person’s heart rate and breathing. Furthermore, these colors –which many people might not know – encourage consumers to eat more and more quickly if they are actually used in a food-related establishment.
They can be interpreted as stimulants for one’s appetite.

Now you’ve learned why many establishments in this field choose to have their logos, brands, napkins, and interiors colored in red. If it might pass as a coincidence to other people, you certainly know that it is anything but a coincidence.

So, how can I choose which colors to use in a graphic project?

To start with we can refer to the very interesting color analysis done by Amanda Vlahakis, who details the various meanings attached to a certain range of colors, as well as explaining how color is perceived subjectively, depending on an individual’s surroundings, cultural setting and one’s own status as an individual within that society.
You want an example? In many cultures, white is a color associated with love, marriage and purity. In China however, this color symbolizes death. As you can see from this example, it is easy to evoke a whole range of emotions with the same color.

Having said this, the following colors reflect an underlying set of values that span across and include many of the world’s cultures.

  • Red: Red is the color that is perceived in the shortest timeframe by the naked eye, even though current research shows how the young and elderly might find it difficult to perceive. Red represents energy, speed, danger, excitement, strenght, and sex.
  • Blue: Blue is the favorite color of Europeans, especially for members of the male gender. Blue represents security, responsibility, and trust.
  • Yellow: Warm and stimulating like the sun, yellow is tied to positive feelings and happiness; it is loved by the young. It can also be associated with betrayal and jealousy.
  • Orange: Orange is a warm and energetic color, and used in the proper context it is the perfect color to entice a consumer to buy something.
  • Green: Green is a fresh color tied to nature, brightness, and hope. For some people it is associated with disease and superstition.
  • Purple: This color is frequently associated with religion, but it is also considered an elegant, regal color. Unconsciously, purple is associated with spirituality and dignity.
  • Pink: Soft and delicate, it is used to symbolize love and sweetness. Be careful though: an excessive use of this color can make a website look very infantile.
  • White: Purity, cleanliness. As it was stated before, white is associated with death in Asia.
  • Black: It can be sophisticated, elegant, or mysterious, but it can also symbolize death and the occult. However, if it is used properly (such as in high-end luxury items) combined with the gold color, it can create a very exclusive and chic atmosphere.
  • Gold and Silver: These two colors are prestigious and regal. They tend to be associated with expensive items.

Before experimenting any further, it is best to consider any unconscious or hidden associations of these colors and what they might mean to our target audience.

Which are the right colors?

Put simply, there’s only one answer: there are no right colors, as there are no wrong colors as well. What one finds is colors which fit well a certain project, depending on the unique characteristics of the project.
To find a set of good-matching colors, we can refer to a set of wonderful tools (such as the Color scheme designer , which allows a user to check the various monochromatic, analogous, and complementary color arrangements)  but most importantly, one must trust one’s instinct and good taste.
Just to be clear, in our sample nursery website we can opt for pastel or glowing colors such as yellow and orange. While for a restaurant, especially a trendy upscale one, we must use softer colors.

Keep in mind that colors and the chromatic arrangements derived from them are one of the most important factors that a visitor is impressed with upon his or her first visit to a website. So, if you don’t want potential visitors from fleeing away from your website, it will be best to avoid certain color arrangements .

Keep in mind that a good color choice (combined with a great chromatic arrangement) can either make or break a graphic project.

Recommended Reading

10 Super Useful Tools for Choosing the Right Color Palette

Find the Perfect Colors for Your Website

….And you, what is your favourite color for design?

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The Author

Web designer, has been working in the field of graphics and web development for six years and at the moment besides collaborating with a web agency successfully manages her freelance activity under the name of mascara design. Like many freelancers she is used to handling more roles, ranging from paper graphics to the development of html and css codes; nonetheless this passion of hers remains, always and however, web graphics.

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