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A Crash Course in Color Theory for Non-Creatives

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Speider Schneider
Speider Schneider
Web Hosting Geek

Color is a sight and emotion-based element. If you want to keep your brand strong and work well with a design project, it pays to know why color has so many different emotional responses and which response do you want for your brand.

Have you ever wondered why you seem to be getting hungrier while waiting to place your order at a fast food place or why you eat faster than any human should ingest that poison? Have you ever heard of a “power tie” in business? There are things that excite the human senses. Aromatherapy and the sense of smell bring about mood and emotional change. Taste, touch and audible sensations bring about the same changes, so it’s no surprise that visuals also bring about emotional changes in humans. Color is light and light is energy. Scientists have found that actual physiological changes take place in human beings when they are exposed to certain colors. Colors can stimulate, excite, depress, tranquilize, increase appetite and create a feeling of warmth or coolness. This is known as Chromodynamics.


In 1666, English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, discovered that when pure white light passes through a prism it separates into all of the visible colors. Newton also found that each color is made up of a single wavelength and cannot be separated any further into other colors. Color has the power to suggest mood and emotion and, used the correct way, you can move people to become excited, fearful, playful, relaxed and powerful.




The big fast food giants have similar colors for their brands, which stimulate and excite. Oddly enough, Whataburger, a smaller chain, uses muted colors for a friendly retro feel. Coke also uses the power of a warm red, giving the feel of a lazy summer day. Which website entices you the most?

Our personal and cultural associations affect our experience of color. Colors are seen as warm or cool mainly because of long-held (and often cross-cultural) associations. Yellow, orange and red are associated with the heat of sun and fire; green, blue and violet with the coolness of leaves, sea and the sky. Warm colors seem closer to the viewer than cool colors, but vivid cool colors can overwhelm light and subtle warm colors.


Look at this photo of the five U.S. Presidents. Which one commands more respect from the colors they wear? Don’t go by their records as Commanders-in-Chief or you’ll say, “none!”

Several ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese, practiced chromotherapy, or using colors to heal. Chromotherapy is sometimes referred to as light therapy or colorology and is still used today as a holistic or alternative treatment.

In this treatment:

Red was used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation.

Yellow was thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body.

Orange was used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels.

Blue was believed to soothe illnesses and treat pain.

Indigo shades were thought to alleviate skin problems.

Although red, yellow and orange are in general considered high-arousal colors and blue, green and most violets are low-arousal hues, the brilliance, darkness and lightness of a color can alter the psychological message. While a light blue-green appears to be tranquil, wet and cool, a brilliant turquoise, often associated with a tropical ocean setting, will pop more to the viewer’s eye. The psychological association of a color is often more meaningful than the visual experience of the elements themselves.

Why Color Theory is an Important Choice

It’s more than just the emotional factor of the colors you choose. Colors act upon the body as well as the mind. Red has been shown to stimulate the senses and raise the blood pressure, while blue has the opposite effect and calms the mind and body.

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The natural palette screams calm, harmony and “green movement.”

People will actually gamble more and make riskier bets when seated under a red light as opposed to a blue light. That’s why cities with gambling institutions use a lot of red neon lights.

How often have you stopped to admire a flowerbed in full bloom? Expert gardeners arrange the flowers according to their color for extra vibrancy. With a little knowledge of good color relationships, you can make colors work better for you in your business graphics and other applications.

A smart use of a limited color palette by the American Express Company. The Inc. website is plain, neutral and boring. The AmEx ad stands out as the most important element on the page. True blue, it inspires confidence and the burst of color makes it hard to look at anything else.

Studies have also shown that certain colors can have an impact on performance. Exposing students to the color red prior to an exam has been shown to have a negative impact on test performance. More recently, researchers discovered that the color red causes people to react with greater speed and force, something that might prove useful during athletic activities.

Black is the color of mystery, authority, power and evil. It is popular in fashion because it supposedly makes people appear thinner. It is also considered stylish and timeless. Black can also be accented with any other color as it is the ultimate neutral color, albeit the most powerful.

White is cleanliness, sterility, innocence and purity. White reflects light and is considered a summer color. White is popular in decorating and in fashion because, as with black but at the opposite end of the spectrum, it is light, neutral, and goes with everything.

Red is the most emotionally-intense color. It is the color of blood, the color of the devil, Mars (the God of war) but also the color of a Valentine Day heart. Red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. Red ties are known as “power ties” and are favored by CEOs and politicians. Red cars, according to police statistics, are popular targets for thieves. In decorating, red is usually used as an accent to draw attention in a room or for a doorway.

The most romantic color, pink, which is a shade of red, is more tranquil and considered feminine. Candy is often pink and it is a color that inspires happiness.


A friendly and inviting candy store’s website makes your mouth water and your teeth hurt just by looking at it. A bright, retro feel brings up happy emotions.

Blue, as the color of a clear sky and a deep ocean, is one of the most popular colors. It causes the opposite reaction as red. Blue causes the body to produce calming, tranquilizing chemicals, so it is often used in bedrooms. Blue can also be cold and depressing. Fashion consultants recommend wearing blue to job interviews because it symbolizes loyalty. People are more productive in blue rooms. Studies allege that weightlifters are able to handle heavier weights in blue gyms.

Green symbolizes nature and the current recycling, save-the-planet movement. It is the easiest color on the eye and is reported to improve vision. It is a calming, refreshing color. People waiting to appear on TV sit in “green rooms” to relax. Hospitals often use green because it relaxes patients. Dark green is masculine, conservative, and implies wealth. It is also a color of luck as in a four-leaf clover.

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Yellow is a happy, cheerful color that draws attention, especially when paired with a strong contrasting color. While it is considered an optimistic color, people lose their tempers more often, and babies will cry more, in yellow rooms. It is the most difficult color for the eye to take in, so it can be overpowering if overused. Try looking at a yellow wall of a website for a long period and you will most probably get a splitting headache. It is believed, however, that yellow enhances concentration and that it speeds metabolism.

Purple is the color of royalty and connotes luxury, wealth, and sophistication. It is also feminine and romantic. However, because it is rare in nature, purple can appear artificial and often causes a “vibration” when not used in a proper color palette.

Brown is solid, reliable and is the color of earth. It is abundant in nature but varying shades have very different emotional responses. Light brown implies genuineness while dark brown is similar to wood or leather. Brown can also be sad and wistful. Brown is often considered a “male” color.

A Mix of Colors

In the same way that one color can appear different in different surroundings, two similar colors may appear to be identical under some conditions. Even though the two symbols are actually slightly different tones, the contrasting backgrounds cause our brains to think that they are the same color. This effect is harder to control, but be aware of it because it can affect your graphics in hidden ways.

The feeling you get when looking at bright complementary colors next to each other is a vibrating or pulsing effect. It seems that the colors are pulling away from each other. It’s caused by an effect called “color fatiguing”. When one color strikes a portion of the retina long enough, the optic nerve begins sending confused signals to the brain. This confusion is intensified by the complementary colors.


The BoingBoing logo, a warm red, will have different effects as the color is changed. The heart-pounding yellow is a little too bright (although the contrast is attention grabbing) and the pure violet at the bottom is too dark and vibrates, which will cause the viewer to move off the site more quickly.

Mixing brilliant complementary colors gets attention, but should be used with restraint. The effect is disconcerting and can make your eyes feel like they’ve been shaken around.

If you want to use complementary colors without causing discomfort, you can outline each of the colors with a thin neutral white, gray or black line. The outlines separate the two colors, which help your brain keep them separated.

When two very similar colors touch in an image, both colors appear to wash out and become indistinct. This is because the borders between the colors are difficult to distinguish and your brain blurs the colors together.

Personal Preferences

Color preference is subjective. If you face a committee of critics of your design, you will receive several different requests for color changes… for completely different colors. People have a connection with certain colors due to their experiences with objects of those colors. A person who has positive experiences with a favorite blue toy as a child will generally like the color blue even later into life.

This works in a negative manner as well. Facing a committee with a line of designs, a marketing person refused to allow a cherry red to be used. It was an integral part of the design as it was part of the client’s branded style guide, so some argued the color was appropriate. After point and counter point was argued to exhaustion, the marketing person admitted her aversion to the color was from a girl who wore that color of lipstick who had tormented her in school. Irrational to others but not to her, as the color made fear and anxiety well up in her. The committee did look past her preference and she constantly complained about the client’s products, not allowing any of them to be placed in her office… although we would hide them in her desk drawers and messenger bag.

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By the same token, the red and green colors are ignored by designers suffering even the slightest color blindness as those two colors hold the most common problems in color blind individuals.


Most probably a standard background picked up by the designer of this site, the mix of colors detracts from the site content. Sites with colorful content (art and products) should use neutral colors to frame the color that will be within the images themselves. More often than not, sites are either white or black to allow the focus to be on the colorful content.


If you’re going to trash someone else for bad web design, first make sure your color choices aren’t bloody awful!


Yes… everything about this site, done to show an example of a bad website, is an abomination against mankind. How long can you look at it before losing your lunch?

A strong visual with the all-black background — perhaps a bit too strong for the subject? While Harley-Davidson leans on their black and orange brand colors, and it works well for them, beware of using too strong of a dark palette. It can be striking but also a bit heavy and give the viewer a sense of dread and claustrophobia.

The WORLD WIDE web demands smart choices for a web design. In China, red indicates luck, while in Nigeria and Germany it means the exact opposite. International corporations, at least the smart ones, will study colors and the effect they have on different cultures. Losing an entire population of consumers due to using the wrong color is a huge hit on profit and brand awareness.

What are YOUR personal preferences? Too often a designer will lean on his or her personal likes or dislikes for a color palette and that can ruin a great design with ineffective colors for the end user. We need to put away the convention of personal choices when designing for the demographics of the consumer and that can be difficult.

Making The Right Choices

A friend of mine was the creative director for a large corporation that encouraged innovation not only in design but demanded color palettes out of the ordinary. He confided in me that they used candy for their color palettes.

“We scanned a pack of Easter-color M&Ms and then used it for our spring line,” he told me while we sat in his office. “I’ve also used Jujyfruits, Skittles and Sour Patch Kids!”

So, who says that’s a bad way to create a palette? There are color generators and books with color breakdowns for designers to use. One can scan a piece of textile, a photo of a beautiful sunset, an ocean scene or a handful of dirt, sand or a piece of wood and create a palette of colors that will blow away viewers. Just be mindful of the colors used as you would the placement of elements. In design, everything, all elements, type, color and images are drawn together to elicit a response from the viewer/consumer. They all must work in harmony, just like the colors in nature.


1 Comment

  • Avatar katylady77 says:

    This is so true! I have noticed doctors offices are blue a lot. Also I have heard of the color affect in the restaurant…sometimes they do a certain color to get patrons OUT faster so more customers can come in. This is an interesting concept to apply to ads and websites.

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