Color has a way of catching our eye, but for brands, it’s not just about looks. The golden arches. That little pale turquoise box. There’s a psychology behind colors. It’s why we hand-select every hue, every Pantone color, and every hex. But before we go deeper into how to choose a brand color, let’s go back to the beginning of it all.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Where would Skittles be without the rainbow?
From prehistoric cave paintings to the present day, color has been an integral part of the human experience. But availability of pigments, or even autocratic tastes, often steered choices rather than empirical reasons.
A true understanding of what color is and how light plays a part wasn’t known until the late 17th century, when Sir Isaac Newton found that refracting white light through a prism splits the visible spectrum into a rainbow of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet beams. This discovery led to the creation of the first color wheel, and opened doors to a more science-based approach to the study of color.
PSYCHOLOGY OF COLOR
“Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” –Wassily Kandinsky
We’re naturally wired to perceive and react to color. To early man, a plump, blue berry said, “I’m delicious,” but a tree frog’s bright yellow skin offered just the opposite message. Whether invitation or warning, vibrant colors let people know they should pay attention—and they still stimulate our senses in a similar way. But now we also recognize the potential power of all colors, not just the ones screaming for attention.
The applications and what different colors symbolize are much more nuanced and the perception of a color’s meaning is linked with culture, context, and personal experience, as well as our ingrained instincts. For example, in Western cultures, white is the color for weddings, symbolizing purity and rebirth, while in many Asian countries white is the color of death and mourning.
Attitudes toward colors can change over time, and seemingly overnight in the digital age, making it vital to keep up-to-date on current trends. In the Renaissance, pink was a largely masculine color while blue was seen as feminine.
Definitive meaning of a color relies on the context in which it’s presented (green symbolizing envy, the environment, and money). But generally speaking, each color has a psychological impact on people.
What if that green Siren on your coffee cup were purple?
Color can set the mood of the brand at a glance. One look at Target’s bold red logo—designed to excite you and invite you in—will have you leaving with everything you never knew you needed.
At HZ, we don’t take a formulaic approach to choosing a color. Every brand is treated differently. To give you a glimpse into our approach, we interviewed a series of HZ creatives for their take on color application, and landed on five essential territories to consider: strategy, emotion, cohesion, scalability, and accessibility.
TERRITORY ONE: STRATEGY
“It’s important to choose colors that are right for the brand rather than relying on personal tastes.” –Leah Shaffer, Associate Art Director, HZ
Similar to creating a blueprint before building a skyscraper, we must have a unifying strategy to be certain of what we are trying to make in terms of brand tone and feel before we can think about any elements, including color. We start with a series of strategic research and competitive analysis, then build out brand messaging to ensure a solid understanding of its position in the market. Only then can we truly design a meaningful brand.
TERRITORY TWO: EMOTION
“Color evokes emotion.” –Leslie Harris, Associate Creative Director, HZ
As we mentioned before, colors have a direct influence on the emotions. We continuously ask ourselves, “How would this make someone feel?” Your answer determines if that shade is right, wrong, or ehh... getting there. The Pantone Color of the Year is a well-known example of how color and emotion go hand-in-hand. Every year, Pantone’s selection process requires thoughtful consideration and trend analysis, with a strong focus on emotion. Pantone selected PANTONE 19-4052 Classic Blue as 2020’s Color of the Year, explaining, “Instilling calm, confidence, and connection, this enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation on which to build as we cross the threshold into a new era.”
So, how does emotional impact play a role in what agencies do? Here’s an example of our thought process for a high-end cosmetics company. If the goal is to make the audience feel calm, chic, and covered at the same time, we’d gravitate towards a palette of warmer lights and dark neutrals. The lighter neutrals are soothing to the senses, but when paired with the darker hues, they create a dynamic range that feels luxurious.
It’s all about balance. But emotions are not the only thing to consider.
TERRITORY THREE: COHESION
“The most successful color palettes help bring cohesiveness and meaning to a brand.” –Chris Walker, Creative Director, HZ
When we pick colors, we ensure they work in harmony with the elements that form a brand identity. We’re talking logos, design accents, messaging, patterns. This holistic approach optimizes the impact each element contributes to the overall cohesiveness of the brand. And is a very important step in the process.
Pro Tip: Pantone coated color bridge swatch books are great to reference for coated spot color and CMYK builds. After selecting the colors there, use the uncoated books for visual matches. (More often than not the PMS numbers from the coated book won’t match the uncoated one, so plan for some investigative work).
Very few, if any, modern brands use a single color for the breadth of applications for their brand—most use a primary palette and a secondary palette of colors. Why is that? Read on.
TERRITORY FOUR: SCALABILITY
“Secondary palettes are like the spaces between the notes in music—they shouldn’t be the focus, but the composition would feel flat without them.” –Joe Symoski, Senior Digital Art Director, HZ
The secondary palette is developed to supplement a brand’s toolkit and provide flexibility. These colors can be used in a variety of ways to enhance design and bring depth to a brand identity.
Because of the wealth of knowledge and approaches to color theory, each designer at HZ has developed a unique perspective over their years of experience, but each is grounded in the same principles. So, while different designers may create varying color palettes for the same brand, each aims to achieve the same result. It’s a bit like taking multiple routes to the same destination: They all work, but one may work slightly better depending on the circumstances.
With the ubiquity of communicating in multiple spaces—both real world and digital—we consider a number of processes and standards—e.g., digital printing vs. press printing, Pantone vs. hex vs. RGB build colors, etc.—to assemble brand colors that will be visually consistent across every medium.
TERRITORY FIVE: ACCESSIBILITY
“Messages need to be clear and readable, so considering color contrast for typography is paramount.” –Joe Symoski, Senior Digital Art Director, HZ
It is becoming increasingly important to make our world an open place where everyone has access to the tools and information available. A particular focus is on the accessibility of the Internet; that is, making sure websites are able to be used by as many people as possible.
This practice affects not just those with disabilities, but also can apply to those using mobile devices and even those with slow Internet connection speeds. So, accessibility has become an important facet of our design process, and color plays an important role.
Because everyone’s monitor is different, we have very little control over the appearance of color on-screen. Yet while true color accuracy is almost impossible, the relationships between colors remain fairly constant. So we focus on creating contrast and readability elements we can control and optimize. These types of considerations are important when choosing brand colors.
The right color has a way of staying with you.
At HZ, we’re known for our orange walls and optimism. So when tasked with creating the next approachable, warm boutique hotel brand, it only made sense to look around for inspiration. Hilton Worldwide brought HZ on board from the very beginning of its process of defining a new lifestyle hotel concept and developing a brand to bring it to life. See the work done here.
If you’re curious about color application, looking to develop your brand, or just feel like chatting, please reach out by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to talk to you about how we can work together.