Everyone’s reaction to colour is personal, and very much shaped by the experiences that have made up their lives. Those who spent a happy childhood building treehouses in the idyllic countryside may have a stronger preference for green, while someone who had every Christmas present wrapped in red paper may find themselves compelled to pick up random red boxes for the rest of their lives.

With this in mind you’d think that attempting to use colour to illicit a particular response to a wider audience, whether it’s for branding, website design or just because you want something to look lovely, would be nearly impossible. However there are a number of studies that show that despite our individual favourites, there are colour preferences that are much more general and can even be preferred depending on your cultural background.

As colour will always be one of the most important decisions you make in any design process, this guide will help you know how to use colour to create the most effective brand, website or image you can.

Colour and culture 

Throughout the design process, particularly in a commercial setting, your aim is to create a hook in a customer’s mind that forms a chain of positive associations. MacDonald’s is in the unusual and charmed position of having their golden arches linked, nearly universally, to peoples’ memories of eating and enjoying a MacDonald’s. But for newer brands you have to use existing cultural associations in an attempt to foster a similar effect over time.

It’s important to carefully consider what colour’s mean to people. A man who walks into a meeting in a slate grey suit would be seen as dependable, in possession of good taste and traditional. One who’s arrived in a neon pink one would be instantly interpreted as eccentric, vibrant, and fizzing with energy. Choosing which colour is going to represent you says an awful lot to people about your brand or service, and getting it wrong can send completely the wrong message.

One thing you can do is look at existing brands to see what they do. Blue is often interpreted as dependable and clinical, and is therefore used in lots of medical services. Green is associated with the environment and healthy living. Yet both of these interpretations are highly dependent on shade. An acid green has somewhat more punk and youthful connotations than a sea-green shade, and a deep, royal blue would be much more suited to high-end and luxury products than it would health insurance.

Of course, rules were made to be broken, and you can really stand out from our competitors by being brave enough to make a bold, unexpected choice. However, it helps to be constantly aware of the message you’re trying to communicate to your customers.

Universal preferences 

When thinking about culture and colour it’s important to be aware that this can vary according to whatever part of the world you happen to be aiming at. For example research by psychologist E.R Jaensch indicates those who live in climates with a lot of sunlight prefer warm bright colours; while those from climates with less sunlight prefer cooler, less saturated colours.

Blue is a favourite across all cultures, perhaps because a blue sky means everywhere that we aren’t going to get rained on that day, which is usually welcome news. On the other hand dark, dirty oranges and browns are associated with imminent stomach churning and are generally less popular all over the world. If you need something that doesn’t illicit a gut response in this way neons and gel blues and greens (the sort of colours often used in toothpastes and cleaning products) don’t invoke this kind of reaction because they aren’t really found in nature.

Gender 

Whether colour preferences across genders are down to hardwired differences or cultural conditioning is a contentious issue. Boys and girls are colour coded before they are even born (people often announce the gender of their child by simply saying “pink” or “blue”, even though less than a 100 years ago pink was considered a boys colour) and associating colour with gender was one of the big marketing coups of the 20th Century.

There are theories that early women did the majority of the gathering part in hunter gatherer societies and needed to spot berries standing out against green foliage, so therefore like reds, pinks and purples. This is essentially guesswork and pretty tenuous, but what is undeniable is that however they originated, gendered colour preferences most definitely exist and it’s something to consider in commercial design.

This infographic is a useful and in depth tool to use when picking colours if your audience is predominately male or female, but always remember to use a bit of nuance. A product aimed at high flying, business orientated women in their 40s may not benefit from the general rule that women prefer soft pastel shades. A cutesy or saccharine style in this instance could potentially patronise your audience. By the same token, something that’s designed to appeal to new fathers may not do as well with brash reds, oranges and blacks that may be appropriate for power tools or wrestling match flyers.

Colour palette

This is all too easy to get wrong, especially in website design, and it’s very important to determine your colour palate as early on as possible. To “wing it” as far as colour combinations are concerned is typically unwise, and you’d have to be very talented or have a great eye in order to get away with it. Nothing is going to devalue your brand or website more than clashing, unpleasant colour arrangements, as it suggests (even if it isn’t) that the product is going to be similarly ill conceived.

This is something that’s really quite hard but resources like this beautiful Tumblr of Wes Anderson colour palates can be a good place to start. Thoughtfully composed films provide lots of inspiration on this front, and Zhang Yimou, director of Hero, is another to watch carefully when you are considering how colour works together.

Accent colours, the equivalent of a feature wall in your living room, work really well and you can use complimentary colours to stand out from your softer background palette to highlight and add vibrancy. This is especially important in web design, as call-to-action buttons like “sign up here!” will be ignored if they blend into the background, no matter how attractively they do so, so strong contrasting colours used sparingly can help here.

Also never underestimate the importance of blank space. Even if your brand is fun, youthful and exciting it’s possible to throw too much colour at something. If people are bombarded with too much information and find something visually noisy, especially on web pages, they are likely to switch off, or navigate away.

Age

When branding a business or website, the age of your target market can often influence the choice of palette. In early childhood children are attracted by strong, warm, and intense colours. As time progresses colours become less violent and softer shades appear. This process steadily continues throughout life with the older generation finding subdued colours more suited to their taste. The different perceptions we have about colour throughout our lives indicate that the intensity of colour should be regulated to match the age specific tastes of your audience.

If you want to go deeper into the theory behind colour then there’s hundreds of studies and plenty of speculation to read on the subject, but you can’t go wrong by ensuring that your colours are attractive, appropriate to your brand personality and will appeal to your target audience. There’s plenty of ways to be fun, daring and bold when making your colour decisions and as long as you stick to a few basic principles, your choices will translate into a strong, memorable image and make your brand design a success.

This post was written by design agency Designmatic, specialising in creative design, branding, web design and packaging.

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