How Accurate is Color Psychology?
When I entered the black hole of wedding planning after I got engaged, I rapidly discovered that the selection of a color palette is just as significant as “saying yes to the dress.” My own mother cemented the importance of our wedding colors: the topic came up innumerable times, from choosing table linens to selecting the color of my sister’s bouquet. I avoided the pastel spectrum for fear of the reception more resembling a community easter egg hunt, and went instead with shades of blue to evoke a celestial theme. But this got me thinking: why do brides afford so much time and effort to choosing colors, when most guests are probably more concerned with whether there will be a beef option on the menu?
The choice of palette is not restricted to weddings. Color undoubtedly has meaning. You slow down at a yellow light and hit the gas when it turns green. Your stress levels skyrocket when you glimpse flashing blue and red lights in your rear-view mirror. Black and orange, in almost any context, remind you of Halloween.
This is something marketers and brand experts have realized long ago: the power of “color psychology.” There are innumerable sources—both web and print—that explain the relationship between colors and the moods they elicit. Let’s run through the basics.
Red: anger and aggression, but also more positive attributes like love, passion, and ambition.
Blue: loyalty, intelligence, and dependability, but also…sadness? (“Hey, you’re looking a little blue this morning.”)
Yellow: happiness and energy, but sometimes instability.
Black: elegance and formality, but also death and fear.
Green: nature, growth, and health, but also money.
Purple: royalty, luxury, or magic.
However, what always bothered me were the numerous—and frequently contradictory—definitions of each color. How, for instance, can red simultaneously mean “angry” and “passionate”? My first, somewhat cynical reaction was, “This is just another example of wish-washy psychology, trying to create a taxonomy where none exists.” But, this is too dismissive a response. Color psychology has value—and that value is dependent on context.
I'll stick with red for my example. It is most frequently associated with anger or aggression, a relationship that is often physically visible: when we become agitated, blood flow increases to our faces, causing us to look “red with rage.” Now, think of Valentine’s Day, a holiday that uses the very same color to represent the polar opposite: love and passion. How can one attribute any value to color psychology when it yields such disparate results?
The importance of what I will call “color contextualization" will become apparent through some examples: Target and Red Bull.
Target uses red for its hallmark bullseye logo, but is the intention here to indicate anger? Given the upbeat nature of their TV commercials* and the whimsy of their print ads, this hardly seems to be the case. The context in which this color appears—on the iconic three-ringed logo—affords the color a new connotation: for Target, red represents qualities that fall outside the binary of “angry” or “passionate.” "Target Red" is attention-grabbing, upbeat, and, when considered alongside its logo, accurate. Blogger and creative mastermind Allan Peters goes so far as to call the logo "a rhythmic pattern, and a playful player in the choreography of life."
Red Bull, the brand behind the famous, highly-caffeinated energy drink, also uses red in its logo, but the effect of color selection here is quite different—and perhaps, much closer to conventional symbolism. The icon present in the logo—two bulls butting heads—works in tandem with the color to evoke feelings of aggression—something along the lines of, “Drink this and you’re ready to rumble!” Here, the more traditional color-psych seems to hold up pretty well.
So the question remains: what should we—even those of us who aren’t designers or marketing experts—make of color? First, it is not a panacea for solving visual communication problems. In the two examples above, I derived a more nuanced assessment of mood by analyzing both the color itself and the context in which it was used.
A simple experiment will solidify this point. If I remove the independent variable—the logo symbols—from our example companies, it is difficult to make any kind of deduction about the mood these brands are aiming to conjure.
This is not to say, of course, that color provides no guidance; it is certainly powerful. A pink Red Bull logo would, regardless of how we feel about gender stereotypes, imply that the drink is marketed to women. Ultimately, a consumer--indeed, a viewer of any kind--needs context to interpret a brand holistically. When we see something—a logo, an advertisement, whatever—we do not separate out the components: “Ok, there is red present here, and an image of a bullseye, and a sans-serif font.” The brain synthesizes all of the visual input to reach a comprehensive conclusion, a conclusion that is partly dependent on color.
Next time you find yourself in my position, wondering why choosing a color palette is so important, think in terms of the whole. My worry that pastels would make my wedding look like a kid's easter basket was probably for naught--unless, of course, our officiant dressed up in a giant rabbit costume. That, readers, is context.