Color psychology comes heavily into play during the process of developing brand color palettes. Its core concept is that different feelings, emotions, and ideas are associated with different colors. But have you ever wondered why you feel calm when you look at the color blue, or a sense of danger when seeing red? What’s behind this?
When we get to the basics of neurobiology, color is simply wavelengths transmitted from the eye, through the optic nerve, and registered in our brain. It has no intrinsic meaning in the brain, nothing more than distinguishing between wavelengths of light.
So why do we feel such different emotions towards various colors? Why does yellow make us feel joy and energy, blue tranquility and peace, red urgency and energy? To get that answer, we move away from neurobiology and toward another branch of psychology—behaviorism. Therein lies a piece of the answer with something called “classical conditioning.“
Classical conditioning is a basic component of behaviorism, a branch of psychology that emphasizes that behavior is influenced by experience. You probably encountered a famous example of classical conditioning in Psych 101 known as Pavlov’s Dogs. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that when he rang a bell tone during a dog’s mealtime, eventually the dog would start salivating at the sound of the bell even if there was no food present. The dogs had learned—subconsciously—to associate the sound with food.
Behaviorists apply this mostly to the way we respond to stimuli, but the concept can also generalize to feelings and associations.
Color theory studies our associations between colors, feelings, mood, and experiences we’ve had with color, along with the greater sociological context around color meanings.
Let’s take a look at everyday pairing experiences
Imagine as a young child your parents told you that the weather was nice, so you could go outside and play instead of staying inside. Joyfully, you went outside and saw the yellow sun, the yellow flowers. It is possible that you paired this association as: yellow sun = nice weather = time to go outside = time to have fun.
Quickly the color yellow—along with sunshine, spring flowers, bright light—became paired with the experiences of joy and happiness. This may be why we often see the color yellow used in logos, brands, and paintings to evoke a sense of joy and lightness.
Another example: you went to the gardens with your family, you went on a hike, you played in the forest. You saw the color green and life growing all around you. The color green was paired with the sense of regeneration, growth, life. Logos, brands, paintings, and art using this color to evoke a sense of growth, change, hope, and regeneration, drawing directly into a collective experience and association.
These colors can be used in a brand to evoke familiar sentiments and experiences we’ve all had with color.
How symbols and cultural impact change meaning
However, other factors can change the story and the feeling that you were going for.
Colors can change their story when paired with symbols, creating an entirely new meaning. For example, the color red.
When you were a kid, you saw a firetruck, red flashing lights, you fell and scraped your knee and saw blood, you received corrections on your spelling quiz in red ink. You started to pair the color red with the sense of correction, urgency, warning, and danger.
But what if you add a heart or a flower into the picture? Instead, red within these shapes symbolizes romance and passion.
Now, how about a circle with a slash through the middle? Suddenly, the color red once again signals a feeling of warning and danger.
Pairing colors with certain shapes tells a more complex and specific story.
Classical conditioning has been occurring not only on an individual level, but on a societal and cultural level over thousands of years in different places in the world with unique landscapes, religions, and life experiences. Thus, color connotations vary in different cultures. Although we may assume that a color’s meaning is universal, it usually isn’t. Color psychology is influenced by context, culture, and subjective experience. When trying to communicate a story cross-culturally, explore that culture’s color associations in order to communicate effectively.
Telling a story through color
Color is a crucial piece of branding. With it, you can reach into your audience’s past experience to evoke an idea, tone, or emotion. It tells a story through color, sending a message about your brand.
For example, Whole Foods’ circular green logo evokes a story about regeneration and healthy food options, connecting to familiar experiences with green produce, plants, and trees.
Because culture, context, and individual experience affect our perception of color, use it as a guide rather than a scientific reference. It is contextual, but so is your brand and your own story.