Color psychology is not as easy as people make it out to be. There are a lot of caveats. The good news? When you understand those, your strategy will be even more effective.
We’re influenced by our environment, there can be no denying that. Such things as showing people related to being old makes them walk slower, while words about rudeness makes them interrupt conversations. And if words can do that, then imagine what something as primal as color can do. It is quite impressive, actually.
For that reason, it is incredibly important before starting any visual project to have an understanding of color psychology and what colors mean to others.
The only problem? We don’t actually know all that well what they do.
Most of the articles out there that you can read simply repeat what other articles have said without offering up a great deal of evidence. Others quote very thin slices of the literature while ignoring all the evidence that says things aren’t like that.
The reason for this is that color isn’t something we can handle abstractly. Instead, personal preference, culture, and upbringing muddy how different people see different colors, the basis of color psychology.
For that reason, there are two things you should take away from any paper about color psychology:
- Take it with a grain of salt. None of what you read is gospel truth and a lot of it is questionable. So, if you read something that seems plausible go ahead and test it first. It might be different for your audience.
- Color psychology works best on a homogeneous audience. Gender, location, age and heritage will muddy the water. If you do have a diverse audience, you might need to test different color schemes on different groups.
Got that? Okay, with that caveat behind us, let’s look at what we know.
Using color psychology to evoke emotions
First the good news. Researchers have found that 90% of a snap judgement about a product is made based on color. And the bad news? What that judgement will be is too dependent on personal experience to make it possible to say that blue does this or red does that. This means that the argument that you want to choose orange because it is interpreted as being cheerful holds about as much water as choosing it because it’s your partner’s favorite color.
There is some more good news, though. What actually matters to people is color fit. People take the color and try to fit it to what the brand is trying to evoke. If that matches up, then the brand gets brownie points.
What’s also useful to know is that color patterns are used to make brands more recognizable and as more recognizable brands are better liked by consumers – that’s a point in favor of going with a bold color motif.
Five dimensions of brand personality
In an expansive study, Stanford professor Jenifer Aaker determined that there are five different core dimensions which matter for the personality that we associate with a brand, with a brand sometimes being able to embrace two but generally being best off focused on one.
The trick is to know which category your company belongs to and then choosing colors that accentuate that color. The best way that you can do that is not to go with stereotypical associations (i.e. brown is rugged and red is excitement) but to instead take the colors that in the context of your brand signal the dimension that matters.
To do so successfully means to take into consideration what that color psychology means within your industry. For example, green can mean entirely different things for an environmental company than for a financial company.
Now that we’ve rubbished the entire idea that one color signals one idea, lets look at what you can use. It turns out that contrast is always a useful go-to concept. Something that stands out vividly is going to be noticed.
This is known as the isolation effect. There are many ways to make something more noticeable than its surroundings, including the use of negative space and movement. But color naturally forms another effective way to draw people’s attention. And when it draws attention in this way, it is far more likely to be remembered.
It’s also appreciated by viewers, who use the contrast to navigate through your web page, for example, as it tells them where to pay attention and what they can safely ignore. This, as any essay writing service will tell you, is the same reason when we write stories we put in headlines and images. They offer contrast and accentuate different aspects of the story.
The most effective way to select colors that contrast but do not clash is to use color theory and take a look at a color wheel. This will make it far easier for you to find colors that accentuate rather than argue.
Do the test
When you have selected a few color schemes that work best, don’t be afraid to test them out. To help you separate out which works where you’ll want to not just log which colors convert better, but also with who they do so.
The best way to do that is to design a study where you log which of your designs appealed the most to which type of customer. If you do go down this road, you’ll want to pay attention to age, gender, country (and perhaps state) of origin and other factors which distinguish your different audiences from each other.
If you do find that your can divide your audience into different groups with varying preferences, you might be better off designing several landing pages based on region or keyword searches.
Whatever you do, don’t simply assume that one page converts more ‘because the button is red and here it is green’. It is rarely that simple. Very rarely can we treat things in isolation like that. Instead, the red button might convert better mainly because it created more contrast with the rest of the page, or because the red color played better with the other elements.
If you can avoid taking these types of easy answers, though it might take you a little bit longer to settle on the color scheme that will work best your site and your audience, you’ll ultimately find combinations which really work based on what your audience wants and what sets you apart from your competition.
And that will pay for that initial increased uncertainty a thousand times over.