Perhaps the most immediate impression we get from websites, documents or other materials is the colour scheme. This isn’t just about looking pretty. There’s a field called colour psychology that says different colours give us particular messages. The choices you make here can strengthen your message or create a jarring effect that makes it harder for people to trust you.
This post sets out commonly recognised associations for 12 colours, to help you understand their effects and choose the right ones for your work.
Quick jumps to colour sections
The power of colour
Whether we realise it or not, colour schemes spark off associations in our brains. We feel differently about warm colours and cool colours; about bright colours and muted colours. Colours can excite or relax us, signal trustworthiness or act as cues to particular values.
If you want to consciously communicate your message to people who visit your site and read your materials, it’s not just about picking colours that you happen to like. Choose a colour scheme that looks good and says the right things about you.
This material is a digest from sources I found online when I was researching colour psychology for a course I made (‘Design your message into your website’ – it has also been available as a standalone product). There were lots of places that had parts of the picture but gave too little information or, occasionally, too much! So I’ve aimed to give a nice balance between informative and digestible.
What is colour psychology?
This is a real field of study, with ever greater interest as we find new visual mediums and want to use them to influence people.
It seems that some associations come from the way colours have been used around us in our culture throughout our lives (like black or white used for mourning). Others may go back further, rooted in a biology designed to live in nature (like finding harmony in green).
It’s not an exact science, and there are lots of variables. People from different cultural backgrounds have different interpretations of colours. People of different ages may see colours differently (as, of course, do people with different visual conditions). Men and women tend to react to some colours differently, and of course personal preference varies widely. But there are trends that mostly hold true.
Once people have had that subconscious reaction to colour, it acts as a frame for your words and the message you’re trying to send. What are your values and approach? Do you walk your talk or is something off?
If you’re approaching your message in a planned way, colour needs to be part of it. That might just be at the level of realising that your favourite colour has entirely the wrong associations for your business or organisation. Or maybe you’re at the stage of choosing a detailed colour scheme for something new.
Or maybe you’re just interested in exploring it – as I was!
The sections below present a range of colours with their common impressions and associations. Read through and try to be aware of how the different variations affect you.
Red is the warmest colour: in fact, it’s hot. It’s connected with powerful emotions from anger and aggression to love and desire. It’s the colour of fire and blood. Red grabs our attention and calls us to action, increasing the heart rate and creating a sense of urgency. It is used to convey danger and warning, like traffic lights telling us to stop and road signs telling us “no entry”. It stimulates appetite, so restaurants often include it in their colour schemes. It can also have a connotation of sexiness.
Use this colour for excitement: showing that you’re passionate, active or adventurous about something, or that your audience should be. In particular, use it for links and buttons to sign up for something, as tests have shown that red can increase the click-through rate. It can also indicate strength and vigour, so it may be useful for a martial arts or sports club.
A lot of bright red will tire the reader out, so it’s usually better as strategic highlights. You can get away with more red if you use darker shades. Don’t use red if your message is about calmness, balance or careful consideration. It’s quite a masculine colour, so it could be off-putting to a female audience.
This colour combines red and yellow, and can be useful if you want a warm or attention-grabbing touch without the extremes of those two. Orange is generally seen as cheerful, sociable, light-hearted and enthusiastic. It’s the colour of social communication. It suggests adventure, self-confidence, perhaps risk-taking. It stimulates appetite and conversation, so restaurants often use it. Shades like terracotta and peach give a more grounded or sophisticated look.
Unfortunately people have mixed perceptions of orange. A lot of people (in the west) simply don’t like it, aesthetically. So it’s often wise to use it as occasional elements rather than big blocks of colour. Its negative associations include insincerity, self-indulgence and exhibitionism.
Orange has become associated with products being affordable, but that can easily cross the line into making things look cheap, and therefore low quality. Make sure your design avoids the bargain bin feel.
Use orange for sites about travel, holidays, sport, or other fun or adventurous activities. It’s popular with children and teenagers. It can provide a very human uplifting note, so may be helpful with people who have had personal difficulties. It could help to give courage to make changes.
Don’t use it for luxury products or services, or if you’re helping people lose weight!
Yellow is linked with the sun, and seen as warm, happy and friendly. It’s highly visible and the best colour to grab our attention. It stimulates the intellect and curiosity, helping with analytical, logical thinking and decision-making. It’s also linked with communication involving facts and ideas. Being bright and happy, it’s popular with children.
Too much can be over-stimulating, making people anxious and agitated. People won’t stay long where there’s lots of yellow (fast food restaurants use it to stimulate appetites and keep people moving). It can also lead to over-thinking, being too analytical and critical, and becoming impatient. There’s an old association with cowardice and deceit, and it does seem to cause wariness (perhaps because it’s a warning colour in the natural world).
Consider yellow if your message is about having fun or lifting the spirits – for instance in leisure or entertainment. Play activities for children would be a prime candidate. Also use it if you’re introducing ideas and new ways of thinking, for learning, or if you’re helping people to weigh up options. Yellow as a highlight element could draw attention to important areas of your page.
Avoid yellow if you’re trying to create trust, like an ecommerce site, or your message is about calming and balancing emotions. Especially avoid it if you work with stressed people or older people: it may be too much for them.
A practical problem with yellow is that it doesn’t give good contrast against a white background. That’s why I’ve put an outline on the page title above. You can use it for blocks of colour, or for text on a darker block.
Green is the colour of plants, and although most of us live in urban environments now we still have strong connections to it. Green is the colour of harmony and balance, sitting between the reds and blues. It makes us feel relaxed and settles our emotions. It’s the colour to use if you want to symbolise nature, hence its use (and overuse) in the environmental movement and “green” products and services. It also suggests life, health and healing, fertility, and nurturing emotions. There’s an association between money and this colour, especially darker shades.
There are also unpleasant greens, related to things we want to avoid. Try not to suggest rotting vegetation or seasickness!
This is a good colour if you want your audience to relax – perhaps if you’re offering therapy. It’s also worth considering if your message is about abundance, prosperity or growth, including moving into new ventures. Naturally (!) it’ll come to mind if you’re talking about eco-stuff, organic food and such, but try to be smart about it rather than just plastering it everywhere – that might look as if you’re just jumping on a bandwagon.
Green can also have negative connotations like jealousy and inexperience. You may want to limit it and watch the hues carefully where you’re talking about personal stuff, such as on your About page.
This is a mixture of blue and green, ranging from greener to bluer. It doesn’t appear in everyone’s lists of colour associations, but I wanted to add it here because a lot of people find it useful.
Turquoise represents communication, self-expression, inspiration, reflection and clear thinking. It has the calming and balancing effects of blue and green, and includes hues like the sky and the sea. It can also suggest cleanliness. Many people find it a recharging colour. It can add a note of electric energy to a design, though it will be a cool, clean energy.
It’s a good colour if what you do includes teaching, public speaking or computer communications. I chose a bluer turquoise for my colour scheme because my work is thinking about communication. It’s also an obvious choice for anything involving water.
The negatives include becoming too calm and balanced, and not speaking your mind or getting involved in things. Its airy and watery feel won’t be the best fit if you’re doing something very practical and down to earth, or if you’re trying to fire up people’s enthusiasm. Too much of it could feel glacial and unapproachable.
This is the archetypal cool colour. It reminds us of sea and sky, wired in from our days in more natural environments, and also of cold weather. Blue is the colour you’ll see most often on websites, because most people like it aesthetically and it conveys trustworthiness, which is a powerful currency online. A lot of company logos use it too.
Blue is associated with calmness, security, responsibility, loyalty, order and authority. It helps one-to-one communication and can give a sense of freedom and spirituality. Darker blues convey establishment and tradition; lighter blues are fresh, clean, free and creative.
Use blue if it’s especially important to gain people’s trust, for example if you’re in health care, medicine, therapy, or a service provider in a field where reliability is crucial. Banks and finance companies use it a lot. It can promote a sense of calm and order, so would help with stressed clients or if you’re promoting thinking things through and making plans. And of course it’s a good association if what you do involves air or water.
Too much blue can slow things down and lower your audience’s mood, so be careful if you have clients with grief or depression. It can suggest rigidity and predictability, so limit darker blues if you want to come across as innovative, energetic or adaptable. Blue reduces appetite and almost never occurs in foods, so don’t use it for a food business. Young people may see darker blues as a colour for adults, not for them.
Indigo is a deep blue with a little purple. It’s said to combine integrity and structure with creativity and vision.
(In the colour bar I’ve played with adding hints of colour to black. It goes pure black, red, blue, green, grey. You may find it hard to make out the differences. Most people won’t notice it’s not pure black unless they have a comparison, and it can add a subtle extra atmosphere.)
Black is the colour of darkness and night. It has long been associated with evil, and in western cultures it’s the colour of death and mourning. However, it’s somewhat rehabilitated these days, as we’ve realised how useful it is as a strong and striking colour.
Black is handy because most colours go well alongside it, creating good contrast. It can convey power, boldness, authority and seriousness. It can also suggest sophistication and luxury. It can be classic, conservative, traditional, formal. It can also give a sense of mystery.
Some websites use a black background, because like white it’s easy to put other colours with it, but it is rather overpowering and harder to read than a white page. Used more sparingly, it can make your site look cool and trendy to young people. It’s good if you’re selling luxury products or services. If you have a campaign message, black can add authority and weight and emphasise seriousness.
It can seem unfriendly or even depressing, so use it sparingly or not at all if your message is about being upbeat or friendly, or if you’re helping people with personal problems.
Black text on a white page doesn’t make a big difference to colour impressions because we’re so used to it, though it is part of the design.
(In the colour bar I’ve played with adding hints of colour to white. A plain white illustration would be a little boring! You may find it hard to make out the differences. It goes grey, yellow, red, green, blue. combinations like these are common in paints for decorating rooms, to give lightness with a touch of warm, cool, sunny, relaxing, and so on.)
White is, of course, the colour of a blank page of paper. It’s the commonest background colour for websites because of that, and because it’s easy to find other colours that work well with it and have good contrast.
You can use it as a colour in its own right, though – for instance by putting it inside a block of a darker colour. It signifies purity, cleanliness, innocence, simplicity and peace.
It can suggest sophistication: the packaging of Apple products has a lot of white, implying prestige items that are simple to use and uncluttered. White can suggest new beginnings, creation of order, and impartiality. Too much of it, though can seem sterile, cold, detached and boring.
It’s good to use if you want to convey neatness and cleanliness: perhaps for doctors, dentists and other health-related fields, or kitchen and bathroom suppliers.
You don’t want white to be a major feature on sites about creativity, engaging people emotionally, or motivating people to take action. In cases like those, just use it as a spacing element. (In some cultures white is a colour of mourning. If your audience is international, watch out for the associations.)
Grey is the blend of black and white: a spectrum of dark to light with colour taken out. It’s the essence of neutrality. It can also suggest sophistication, authority, control, respect and stability. Grey works well with other colours, so is often seen in combination. It can suggest metals, which in turn might suggest industry or hi-tech innovation. It can also help you look intelligent, knowledgeable or dignified.
The sample blocks above are neutral greys with equal red, green and blue. You can also add touches of colour: a little extra red for a warm grey or a little blue for a cold or silvery grey.
Grey can be attractive as strategic touches in combination with other colours, but if you get it wrong it becomes dull, boring and indecisive. It’s a colour that needs good design.
It’s a good choice if you want to look respectable and trustworthy. It can also help if your message is classy and innovative. Don’t major on grey if you’re about high energy, informality or motivation.
Pink is generally thought of as a blend of red and white (though in computer colour specifications it’s a bright purple). It is, of course, thought of as a very feminine colour, to the extent that it may be off-putting to men and boys.
It’s a warm colour, but not threatening like red can be, and paler pinks can comfort and calm our emotions. It can be youthful, soft, sweet, innocent, delicate and gentle. It can also be passionate, and is associated with love and romance.
Its link to compassion and understanding can make it a useful inclusion for organisations working to help and support people. It’s common in women’s fashion and beauty industries. It’s seen a lot in marketing to teenage and pre-teen girls.
The downside of pink is that it can look over-emotional, immature and fanciful. It would be a poor voice for most messages about being strong, grounded or reliable.
In ancient times purple dye was rare and expensive, so it was a colour worn by the rich and powerful, and came to be associated with royalty. It’s also an exotic colour of mystery, dreams, the subconscious and spirituality. It combines red and blue, so stands between warm and cool, and you can vary that by changing the hue.
This is a good colour for luxury products and services, playing on those themes of status, wealth and sophistication. It’s also good for things that are inward-looking or “alternative”, or invoking the imagination.
Purple is popular with children and young people. Lighter tints like lavender suggest beauty, sensitivity and nostalgia: women often like them.
This colour is not a great choice if your core message is practical, mature and down to earth, or if your main audience is adult men. For instance it’s not going to work well for practical trades like plumbing, or for professionals like accountants who need to emphasise reliability.
Magenta is on the border between purple and pink or red. It’s said to indicate harmony: a blend of spirituality and innovation with practicality and support.
Brown is another colour strongly tied to the natural environment. It symbolises earth. That gives it an association of being close to the earth: grounded, rustic, traditional, wholesome. It’s also linked to wood, and therefore related to crafts, construction and utility. Brown has elements of both warm and neutral. It relates to home and hearth, simplicity and security.
For businesses and organisations, brown can indicate strength, reassurance and reliability. It’s good for outdoors products or activities. It would be good to include in branding for organic food to indicate wholesomeness. You can also use it to suggest nostalgia, for instance if you’re selling period clothing, old photos or antiques.
The downside is that it can be seen as heavy and boring – possibly even dirty by some people. It would be a poor choice if you’re dealing in high-flying creative ideas. Women may find browns less appealing than men do.
Terracotta is a brown-orange combination that gives a more lively and social version of the virtues of hearth and home.
I hope you found that helpful. I’ve tried to make each colour entry concise, with the useful info that’ll help you decide whether to put it on your shortlist.
Of course you need to give some thought first of all to what impressions you want to give out about what you’re like as a person and in your approach to your work. And once you’ve got a shortlist you need to make a colour scheme of 2-4 colours that actually look good together.
Helping people work out their messages and find appropriate colours is part of the work I do with clients. You can find out more about that elsewhere on the site.
Did any of the colours jump out as a good fit for what you do, who you are and how you do it? Did any strike you as a really bad fit that would send completely the wrong message? Feel free to tell us about that in the comments.