Brush Up on Color Psychology For Marketing

I am always on the lookout for bits of information to help me understand things a little better. Though I am no stranger to color theory, it’s nice to have a refresher once in a while and maybe learn something new while I’m at it.

Basics of Color Psychology
Color Pschology: How does it affect human emotions?

Color Theory Basics

Tints, Shades, and Tones

Of course, you already know about colors, and which colors are primary, secondary, and tertiary (when talking about additive colors, that is), but do you know what it’s called when you mix them with white, black, or gray?

Tints are colors that have been mixed with white. Shades are colors that have been mixed with black. Tones are colors that have been mixed with gray. That’s all there is to it!

Color Harmonies

It might seem like colors are chosen to go together because they look good together, and although that’s true, there is a real reason behind it.

Color harmonies are patterns of colors based on the color wheel. There are quite a few, and you will want to choose a color scheme that fits the message you want to convey with your color marketing (more on that in just a moment).

The color harmonies include warm, cool, analogous, monochromatic, complementary, split-complementary, triadic, square, and tetradic.

In a nutshell:

  • Warm: use all warm colors

  • Cool: use all cool colors

  • Analogous: Colors aligned next to each other on the wheel

  • Monochromatic: Using only tints, shades, and tones of one color

  • Complementary: Colors across from each other on the wheel

  • Split-Complementary: Using three colors, two of which are analogous to the complementary color you want to include (it’s best to have one of the colors be primary)

  • Triadic: Using an equilateral triangle, choose the 3 colors on the corners

  • Square: Using a square, choose the 4 colors on the corners

  • Tetradic: Using two sets of complementary colors together

For every color scheme, you should ensure to have one dominant color, one less-dominant color, and any other colors you utilize be used as accents. Having too many colors vie for attention is dizzying to look at and sends a confusing message.

An abstract oil painting with streaks of aqua blue on top and reds, oranges, and a bit of yellow on the bottom
A complementary color scheme

Color Symbolism

The psychology of color is so interesting because most of it is subconscious. When you use a color in a certain way, with a certain tint or shade or tone, and in combination with certain other colors, you can convey a lot of emotional information at once. As they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Each color has negative and positive connotation

s. It is up to you to make sure you are choosing the right color harmonies and color shades to send the right message.

Generally, warm, bright colors can symbolize friendliness, intelligence, happiness, excitement, and energy when they are bright and pleasing to the eye. But, make them too dark (especially yellow), and you can slip into a palette that makes the audience feel burdened, heavy, sick, fearful, oppressed, and uncomfortable.

Cool colors tend to symbolize intelligence, royalty, spirituality, trust, serenity, vitality, and healing. Of course, using the wrong cool colors in the wrong context conveys depression, sadness, blandness, anxiety, and even a sense of visual onslaught (in the case of pink and violet in particular).

I especially want to talk about the color green in contemporary marketing. Green is probably the most influential color of modern times because of the push to make products feel more earthy and eco-friendly. The easiest way to give someone a sense of “goodness” is to include a comfortable green with earth-tones or neutrals backing it up. Knowing this, it’s important to use this color scheme for a product that is truly eco-friendly in some way, because being dishonest about this can cause a lot of widespread backlash.

A pair of hands holds a round container with a rainbow of paint splatter in lines against a black background
Using too many colors in a marketing context can be confusing. But it can also make interesting art.

White gives the feeling of freshness, purity, and simplicity. It adds “breathing space” to compositions that might otherwise be overwhelmed with color. But, use it incorrectly and white can appear sterile and unfeeling.

Likewise, black can evoke sleekness, sophistication, mystery, and wealth. Inappropriate black can switch the message into oppressiveness, feeling lost, and a sense of foreboding or fear.

Brown is a difficult color to execute well because there are so many shades of brown that are just plain bad. It often doesn’t fit well into a composition. But, done right, brown can feel earthy, natural, cozy, and reliable. It goes well with that eco-green as discussed above! Oppositely, brown can also feel dirty, unsophisticated, cheap, and heavy.

And lastly, we have the colors that aren't really colors at all: metallics. Gold, silver, and bronze are, without outside help, just yellow, gray, and brown. Metallics work best in a print medium with an ink or other treatment that adds an actual luster. It’s impossible to mimic the weightiness of a metallic color with ink alone. Used well, metallic can convey a sense of dignity, wealth, sophistication, and legacy. Done poorly, that message becomes cheapness, tackiness, and a feeling that the designer lacked skill.

One of the most concise and easy-to-understand videos I have seen about color psychology is this video by Visme. It offers some valuable info to remember when you are creating marketing materials.

Remembering these color basics, you can create more interesting and effective products. What is your favorite color psychology tip?