Snapshot : How to explain and how to use colour in design. We focus on key business and marketing goals and some of the choices you need to make about colour to help you win more customers.
As Sydney shivers through as cold and dark a winter as we can remember, it seemed a good time to re-visit the subject of colour.
Along with typography and composition, colour is a core principle of design. Anyone who work in design or with designers needs to understand how to explain colour and how to use it.
How to explain colour in design
As per our guide to colour in marketing, it’s estimated there are around 18 decillion colours in existence. But the differences between colours can be subtle.
The average person can only distinguish around 10 million colours.
That’s still a lot of colours to choose from.
Your brain make sense of all this colour choice by attaching meanings and associations to the most common colours. This means you don’t have to re-assess a colour every time you see it.
For example, think about traffic lights.
We don’t have to assess what the colours mean each time we get to a traffic light.
Our brains make the association that red means stop and green means go. They’ve been “trained” to recognise the meanings of those colours.
Our brains hold can hold thousands of these associations at a time, without us being fully conscious of it.
Understanding what people’s colour associations are is what makes colour in design so interesting.
Your choice of which colours to use in your designs depends a lot on what you are trying to achieve.
Tap into existing colour associations?
For example, let’s say you want customers to easily and quickly recognise what category your product belongs to. You could look at existing colour associations with the category and use those colours in your design.
This is a common challenge when you work in marketing innovation for example. Say you want your new product to be perceived as pure and natural. The most common colour associations for those values are white and green, so those would be colours within your design.
Here’s where it gets challenging though.
Because, while those associations can work to your advantage, they also make it harder to stand out. If everyone in the category uses the same colours, how will customers tell your brand apart from competitors?
Take bottled water for example.
The product packaging between different brands all looks very similar, as we can see in this example from Coles online.
Clear blue bottles and simple blue and / or red labels across the board. Hardly any of the brands stand out from each other.
The one which stands out the most is Voss. Not only does it have an unusual bottle shape, but it chooses to NOT use the standard category colours.
This helps it stand out, and is part of its strategy to be the most premium bottled water.
Or use colour in design to stand-out?
Picking a different or unusual colour can help your brand stand out more.
This stand-out comes from a psychological bias called the Von Restorff effect. It’s based on evidence that we notice things that are different, more than those that are the same.
If we see a bunch of similar objects (like all those bottled waters), we group them together as one object.
We don’t distinguish between them.
Apply that to brands and you can see the opportunity and challenge when it comes to colour in design.
You want to be similar enough to category colour norms so that customers easily recognise you belong to the category. But you need to be different enough from your competitors that you stand out and get noticed.
(Read more about this bias in our review of the book Choice Factory by Richard Shotton)
There’s a definite balancing act when it comes to using colour in your designs.
Market research with customers can help, but even then, it’s hard to measure.
People rarely think deeply about colours. It can be difficult in marketing research to get people to articulate what they really think about colours and why. In many cases, it’s often better to observe rather than ask which course people prefer. Test marketing where you offer multiple colour options to an initial group of customers is a common way to work out which colours are best to focus on longer-term.
Fine-tuning colour with the right language
Another challenge when it comes to explaining colour in design is learning how to describe specific colours and how to differentiate between colours. Colour differences may be subtle, but remember most people can tell apart 10 million different colours. If you don’t get the colour right consistently, people will notice.
This means learning new terms to describe colours so you can fine tune your choice with designers and printers. For example, three regularly used terms you’ll find used for colour in design are hues, tones and saturation.
- Hues – the generic name of colours e.g. red, yellow, blue
- Tones – the amount of light (tint) and dark (shade) that sits within colours
- Saturation – the intensity or chrome of the colour, which can be full or low and relates to the amount of grey used in the colour.
Colour identification systems
You then also find that there are different colour identification systems used depending on the colour design context.
Colours that appear on a screen for example are generated from combining light sources. The colours are additive.
The two most common systems here are the RGB system and the Hex system.
The RGB system allots a value from 0 to 255 to the Red, Green and Blue colour mix for each colour.
How these 3 colours combined based on these values “makes” a new colour.
Full RGB (R255, G255, B255) is white.
The Hex system allocates a 6 character code which identifies a specific colour. (So for example, #A321621 which is the main Ruby Red colour you’ll see used on this site).
When producing colour for print materials though, it works differently. There’s no light source with print. The colour is based on combining ink colours.
The most common system is the CYMK system, which allocates score of 0 to 100 for Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black. This works the opposite way to on-screen colours as the colours are subtractive. Full CYMK (C100, M100, Y100, K100) is black.
There’s also two more options including HSB – Hue Saturation Brightness – and Pantone colours – often used by print specialists.
Our guide to colour in marketing covers these systems in more detail. In terms of colour in design it’s important to know which system you need for the job at hand.
This makes sure you use the right colours every time.
How to use colour in design
As a first step when it comes to colour in design, it’s important to be clear what the business goal is.
You need this to help you work out what you need colour to do to help improve your design.
It can be helpful to refer to the brand choice funnel. As we explain in our marketing planning guide, this tool identifies different stages that customers go through in the buying process.
Each stage has it’s won challenges and the role of colour can differ depending on the job to be done with your design.
Use colour in design for awareness
For example, colour plays different roles at each stage of the brand choice funnel. Brands that have an awareness challenge can use colour as a way to stand out and be more distinctive.
This is sometimes called the “Purple Cow” approach, as cited in the book of that name by Seth Godin.
He uses the example of Milka, the Swiss chocolate company. In the book, he describes how they used an unusual colour (purple) on something directly related to their product (a cow) to help them stand out.
It’s one simple thing. But it’s remarkable enough for it to stand out and be easily remembered. If you show a Purple Cow, people know that you your mean Milka.
So, unusual or provocative colours work well if your challenge is awareness.
But what if people know who you are, and you need to push them towards consideration and trial?
Use colour in design for consideration and trial
Again, the answer depends on context.
You need market research with customers to understand the role colour plays in their purchase decision.
For some categories, it plays a direct role in the decision.
Cars, fashion, home decorations for example all include a consideration of colour in the choice of product. It’s rarely the only driver, but being able to produce a range of colours that taps into what the buyers like is important.
In other categories, colour can play a more subtle role.
Colour is often associated with mood and temperature. If you understand the role these play in purchase decisions, you can pick appropriate colours to make your brand feel more relevant.
For example, warm colours (red, yellow, orange) are associated with more energy. If you want to evoke feelings of fun (e.g children’s toys), excitement (e.g. Mexican restaurants) or passion (e.g. romantic getaways), these colours can help reinforce that perception.
On the other hand, cool colours (blue, green) evoke more calming and measured feelings. If you want to evoke feelings of trust (e.g. banking), expertise (e.g. medicines) or relaxation (e.g. natural beauty products) then these colours help to reinforce those perceptions.
Use colour in design to reinforce brand identity and values
Of course for colours to create strong associations with customers, you need to use them repeatedly and consistently. This reinforces the connection between the brand and the colour. Don’t underestimate how much repetition you need to reinforce colour associations.
You need to make sure your brand colours are captured as a tangible brand asset within your brand identity.
You should consider your essence, values and brand personality. Make sure your colour choices enhance and build on those intangible assets.
So for example, some brands like MacDonalds and Coke are very energetic and extrovert.
They encourage sociability and warmth.
Warm colours like red and yellow sit better with those attributes.
It’s why they feature heavily in the brand identity of brands who want to be perceived that way.
Other brands though are much more calming and introvert.
They may be more professional oriented like Linked in, or encourage reflection and relaxation like Starbucks.
Cooler colours like blue and green site better with those attributes.
That’s why you’ll find cooler colours in the brand identity of brands who want to be perceived that way
Apply colour consistently through your brand activation
Once you have your colours defined as part of your brand identity, it’s important that you monitor and maintain consistency of use.
On-screen use of colour tends to be more consistent than printed materials. It’s important to give extra consideration to printing colours. For example, it’s important on packaging and on sales promotion materials like Point of Sale displays and brochures.
You, or your designer should have a good relationship with your printer. Printing on materials is a much more skilled affair than setting colours on a screen.
A good printer can help you maintain consistency as colours change depending on what they are printed on. Paper stock can make a difference in terms of how it absorbs colour.
Designers know this, but marketers rarely do.
For marketers, this has implications on cost. More expensive materials may make a brand look more premium, but will also increase the cost of goods. Finding the right balance is an important consideration when it comes to colour in design.
Make sure you don’t forget the basics of colour in design
Of course, at the most basic level of design, you mustn’t forget that colours also help improve legibility, contrast and harmony in your designs.
This is especially true when it comes to how you combine different colours together.
Done well, this can makes designs clear and feel more balanced. Done badly, the effect can be jarring and put people off.
Put simply, colours need to “go” well together.
As we cover in our guide to colour in marketing, you have many options here. eg.
- Analogous – colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel
- Complementary / Split Complementary – colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel
- Triads – Colours that split in three equal directions across the colour wheel
- Monochromatic – One signature hue, but with progressive changes in Saturation and Brightness
This means you can have a broader colour palette (see our guide to how we chose our colour palette), where you choose the right colour for the goal and the context.
You may have a strong warm colour you use to grab attention for example, and series of complementary cooler colours you use when you need to be more conversational and soothing in your design.
Conclusion - Colour in design
It’s easy to underestimate the impact that colour plays in design. It’s an important information giver to customers and helps them understand what your design is trying to convey.
Before the customer even sees the shape and details of your design, your customer’s brain will be trying to make sense of the colour.
The most obvious area is your choice of colour that goes into your brand identity. But brand identity then stretches across every piece of your marketing mix.
Use colour in design to help organise information and key messages you want to land with customers. It can help guide customers through complex systems and data and help your brand stand out and be remembered.