In design, colour is very subjective. It's a theoretical science, really. A lady wearing red might appear to be a passionate person, however she make seem to be dangerous to somebody else. There can be many reasons for the variety of reactions. One of them might be a personal preference to a certain colour, or there may even be cultural factors involved. For example, red is often used to represent the country of China, who see the colour as a symbol of luck. Colour theory is mischievous that way, although it has a very important role in design. Graphic designers use this to their advantage as a way to persuade the audience to feel a certain way about a product or brand. Charities may want their audience to feel sympathetic, or gambling websites may want their users to feel reckless. It's a cunning trade. In this article, I will demonstrate how colour theory works, and how you can use these concepts to create elegant, effective branding techniques.
Warm Colours & Red
Hues of red, orange and yellow are warm colours. They're bold, passionate colours, used to depict things like sunsets and Autumn. Positivity, happiness, romance, energy and enthusiasm is often emphasised with warm colours. In eastern civilisation specifically, red means prosperity and good luck. Wedding dresses are sometimes shades of red. Although, in a different context, red is often used to represent anger, fire and the Devil; all things that relate to danger. This is why "STOP" signs are red. Red is used to symbolise these things because it raises blood pressure, respiration rates, and general alertness. Fact: drivers with red cars fork out more in car insurance because they are statistically more likely to be aggressive and crash their car. Brighter red tones are often used to show alerts, whereas darker shades can have a more elegant feel. Here's an example of how red can emphasise the fiery spice of mexican cuisine! Darker tones are less in-your-face.
Red and yellow are both primary colours. Together they create orange, a secondary colour. Because orange is an earth colour, it's often associated with the changing of the seasons (Autumn for instance). It's also the colour of crispy leaves. Because it shares its name with a fruit, it also sometimes represents health and vitality. While it still commands attention, much like red, it's less forceful than red. Here's a vibrantly coloured e-campaign where orange is used to sell low-calorie McDonalds dips. Now, think how differently you might react to this advertisement if it were cold blue. Much less appetising, right?
Yellow, Red's Friendly Opposition
Yellow is the most energising of the warm colours. It is somewhat the opposite to red, symbolising spring, summer, beauty and sunshine, in contrast to the danger and fury in red. What all warm colours have in common, though, is their strength and their boldness.
Blue, green and purple are opposites to warm colours. They're calmer. They usually depict the nighttime, water, nature, and other relaxing things. While green the colour of nature and growth, it often gets used for the same things as yellow. It's the same for purple; it takes on the attributes of red. This is because purple is made from half blue (cool) and half red (warm). For this reason, you could say that purple is the warmest cool colour. Blue hues are used to give a sense of professionalism or calmness, like in the example below.
Green With Envy
In a more negative light, green can also be used to represent envy, jealousy or lack of experience. You've most likely noticed by now that colours aren't so black and white. Pun not intended. This is why we call it colour theory. Every colour group can emphasise a positive or negative emotion, depending on the situation where they are being used. In the financial industry, green is appropriate for meaning wealth and stability, especially darker shades. Brighter greens can be more vibrant, symbolising growth and abundance (below).
Neutral colours are often used as backgrounds so that they contrast effectively with the bolder, more colourful elements of a design. Those colours are called accent colours. The effect of neutral colours often depend on the accent colours that surround them. For example, black combined with purple may express a halloween or gothic theme; however, black combined with white (also known as monochrome) will suggest a more vintage look.
Black is the strongest neutral colour. Positively, it's assosiated with elegance and formality, however negatively, it goes hand-in-hand with evil, death and mystery. It's often used for typography because of its neutrality and elegance. It's easier to convey sophistication in a design with black. Grey is used as an alternative. In the image below, do you see how the designers' work stands out because the background is more dull?
Black & White
White is completely opposite to black, but functions the same. It can be used with almost any colour, although it is a happier colour. It's often used to emphasise purity, minimalism and virtue. It's the colour of wedding dresses in Western cultures. When needing to express cleanliness, for example in healthcare, white is used. It's also used to represent the good in people (such as angels). Designers use white in websites to let the other elements of the webpage take a stronger focus, the same way they do with black (below).
About the author
I'm Daniel Schwarz. I'm the founder/editor of Airwalk Design as well as creative director and designer at Airwalk Studios. When I'm not designing for startups I write regularly about Sketch App for Designmodo, Sitepoint and Smashing Magazine. I'm 24 years of age and currently active in the digital nomad movement.