Is it possible to have a universal colour theory?

Colour is a fascinating subject and (for the majority of people) influences our everyday lives.

Fundamental to shaping our experience of the world, colour perception can impact upon a vast spectrum of human experiences, from the way we enjoy our food, through to the effect of medication on our bodies.

In the world of branding and design, colour is one of the most significant considerations for each new product and project. In an age where a brand colour can solely be used to identify an organisation and in some sectors up to 90% of snap judgements can be made about products based on colour alone, we are all aware that a brand’s colour palette must be viewed as an important strategic consideration. However, the extensive array of theory and literature on this topic seldom points towards the same conclusion. Many studies and opinions researching the impact of colour on design and branding can be contradictory and inconclusive. To join the debate, we have reviewed a sample of existing colour theory covering a range of touchpoints, to understand how rigidly these concepts should be followed to create impactful and meaningful design.

Changing Landscape

Today, colour is a topic that is celebrated through exhibitions sharing the endless possibilities of uses, is standardised through a Pantone language system used across the design industry and is the subject of endless debate. However, theories relating to colour and its uses have been transitioning and evolving throughout history. In the middle ages, mixing colours together was considered against the natural order and taboo. Whereas in the 19th century, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, (the creator of a pioneering theory in this field), claimed bright vivid colours were only for the ‘uneducated and children’. Skipping forward to the 20th century, it is understood that Henry Ford only introduced colour options for his originally black only Model T to address declining sales, as customers demanded variety. Fast forward to 2020 and predicted design trends for the year include vibrant colours with subtle gradients. It therefore seems acceptable, and historically relative, to say earlier thinking and theories on colour are being replaced and modified on an ongoing basis — not only over time but also relevant to their time, place and historical/cultural setting.

No Universal Consensus

The understanding that colours have different meanings to particular groups of people goes far beyond the basics. Taking red as a well known example, it can represent a mixture of danger, blood and romance in the western world, but is at the same time seen as a sign of good luck in China. Looking at the subjective nature of colour in various cultural locations (both historically and geographically) in much more detail, choosing colours that require an international reach can be a tricky decision. Such as yellow, which has a multitude of meanings across the globe — jealousy in France, p0rnography in China, bravery in Japan and a colour reserved for high ranking individuals in certain African nations. Research has found that using stereotypical colours to target particular audiences can actually have an adverse effect, such as the use of pink in branding of breast cancer charities can be counterintuitive to donations from women. We’re also seeing more brands breaking the barriers of how people typically perceive colour associations. A GRIN favourite, Gabby Edlin from the not-for-profit Bloody Good Period, is purposefully moving away from associating menstruation products with baby pink (or the typical advertising blue dye), as instead periods are biologically a combination of red and brown shades. It seems there is an agreement that universal colour psychology that works across all walks of life does not yet exist, and to assume one theory fits all can dramatically over simplify colour and it’s usage depriving it of its cultural uniqueness.

Money Talks

Despite a lack of hard data from many colour theory studies, it is still a big money business in the marketing and design arena. Giants of the branding world use research from this field to determine the colours of their logos, websites and collateral in order to gain competitive advantage through consumer psychology. Certain sectors have adapted to known associations and become notorious for using specific industry colours — such as tech companies and the use of grey (Apple & Microsoft). Millions are now even spent by brands battling to trademark their own colours, to protect a signature shade. So surely an investment of this scale to follow colour theory so closely must return significant results for brands?

Perception of Personality

The area that seems to hold the most concrete findings in colour theory is with the association of colours to the perception of brand personality. Studies have found consumers make unconscious judgements on products and environments within 90 seconds of initial viewing and that up to 90% of their evaluation can be based on colour alone. Within this assessment, consumers are then more likely to increase their purchase intent when they perceive the brand colours used are an appropriate fit with the products or services they are selling. Of course the idea of an ‘appropriate fit’ can again be ambiguous, but typically an example would be natural tones resembling browns and greens would be a positive correlation for outdoors brands. In addition it has been found that if the colour of a product does not appropriately represent its purpose, this can even go as far as confusing and damaging a brands sense of identity. These findings would therefore suggest that aligning brand colours to the personality of a brand seems to be a far more effective way of using theory from this field, than selecting a palette based on the range of emotions an organisation would like their product to evoke.

So what are the implications for brand design?

There is no doubt that colours shape the way we interpret the world around us and also impact upon our purchasing decisions. Despite the ongoing debate from research within this topic, the extent to which theories are adhered to will always be a choice of the brand owner, designer and individual. However, the importance of carefully considering a suitable brand colour palette should be paramount. Other factors can and should be taken into consideration, but ensuring the palette is an appropriate fit with the brand personality and industry sector should be a key focus for any new brand or product design.

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Cover image: Pigalle basketball court, Paris by Alex Penfornis. Taken from designboom