Color me effective

October 2, 2013

There is a well-established process by which brand marketers match colors to the personalities of companies and organizations, and for good reason. We have a gut reaction to color. All major brands have logo colors that are part of the brand image and feeling they want to convey. Red for energy (think of Red Bull energy drink). Dark red for wisdom (think of Stanford or Harvard). Green for anything environmental. Green or blue to communicate a feeling of calm.

Similar to bolding your type, or using a highlighter marker on paper, colors on websites or in photos draw the eye to them as if to say, whether intended or not, “Look here first! This is important.”

Two things to remember:

  1. We have much more positive associations with light colors than with darker ones.
  2. Use high contrast or bright colors to get attention. Warning: while colors like red have been proven to draw attention, website testers have discovered that red can actually underperform when the audience views it as an alarm color, generating a negative response!

A note on black and white

Two psychologists in the research laboratories at Xerox Corporation demonstrated that color’s principal effect in visuals was motivational (emotional). Later researchers also confirmed this, with studies that showed that color visuals increased subjects’ willingness to read by 80% and can positively affect motivation and participation to the same degree.[1]

On the other hand, a black and white scheme is equally as effective as color when just providing straightforward information.[2] Black and white photos tend to be seen as more believable, possibly because of the association of old black and white photos with history.[3]

If color contributes to a mood you want to convey, keep your pictures in color. However, a photo in black and white can be very powerful when colors would otherwise distract from the key elements of the picture or the story you are trying to tell. For example, if you want the eye to focus on Person A, but there are much more vivid colors off to the side, switch to black and white to avoid distractions.

The Internet is chock full of branding/design sites that can help us choose which colors to emphasize based on our brand personality. A color wheel showing what feelings different cultures attribute to various colors can be found on The Color Matters website is also a good resource for those who want to explore the meaning and application of colors further.

When you’re getting ready to roll out your next outreach piece, try a few different color schemes before you settle. Colors set the mood of an image or publication—make sure yours affect the viewer’s perceptions in the right way.

Liz Banse

[1] Green, Ronald E. “The Persuasive Properties of Color,” Marketing Communications, October 1989.

[2] Rossiter, John R. Visual Imagery: Applications to Advertising. Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 9, 1982.

[3] Biernatzki, W.E. “Persuasion and the Moving Image.” Communication Research Trends. Vol. 10, No. 3. 1999. P. 20.