How colour affects who we are – and what we buy

posted on 17 April 2015 by Cameron_Faulds

Colour Spectrum

By Jim Rawson, Design Manager

If there’s one time of year when colour is on everyone’s mind, it’s spring - I think we’d all agree that by the time May comes around we’re happy to escape the chilly grey mists of winter and immerse ourselves in a brighter, more vibrant world – for a month or two, at least!

While it’s generally accepted that colour is important to us on an emotional level (eavesdrop on marital debates in the paint section of your local DIY store if further proof is required!), what is less well understood is the extent and manner that colour affects our thoughts, behaviour and decision-making.

From choices in home and workplace decor, consumer goods, cars we drive and clothes we wear, the sports teams we follow and the foods we eat, the colour spectrum can be an influential but slightly mysterious force across all aspects of our lives – and when it comes to strategic design, a little knowledge of colour theory can be a useful tool in the marketing mix.

 Where our colour preferences come from

At a biological level, colours can carry a variety of innate meanings for many of us. Academics sometimes refer to this as evolutionary aesthetics – the idea that regardless of our cultural background there are fundamental preferences humans adhere to, and associations we make, which are the result of millions of years of continued existence as a species. Thus we might associate black with night, blue with sky or water, and green with growth or nature.

While it’s true that we do have subconscious associations about colour, in the business world they are largely irrelevant. Our ‘learned’ personal preferences around colour are much more powerful when it comes to consumer decisions. These preferences are usually informed by a variety of factors such as gender, cultural background, social demographics, age and trends.

Considering these factors when creating new products or brands can help to align them better with their intended audience.

Gender differences

Gender Colour Preference

Purple is a good example of a gender-specific colour difference. While women – who statistically like purple significantly more than men - are more likely to go on a date with a guy dressed in a purple shirt (!), you will rarely see male-oriented products such as power tools in purple as they generally don’t sell well.

Cultural ‘norms’ can affect our choices too, often without our even being aware of it.

If you’ve visited a baby clothes shop lately, you would have identified the girls’ section by the predominance of pink (and the boys’ by blue and darker colours). However, research conducted in 2011 showed that children of both sexes up to the age of three had no preference for pink or blue when offered objects in both colours.

However, according to the BBC’s psychology writer Claudia Hammond, three to five year olds begin to be influenced by what they perceive to be group ‘norms’.

“This is the time when toddlers start to become aware of their gender, to talk about it and to look around them to see what defines ‘boy’ and what defines ‘girl’. But just like adults, even very small children show biases towards their own group.”

Research also shows time and time again that blue is the only colour that is more or less liked by both men and women equally, regardless of where in the world they live. This popularity makes it a ‘safe’ choice in the world of corporate global brands such as Barclays, Samsung, Gap, Hewlett Packard, Dell, VISA and Hilton. It’s no coincidence that the world’s most popular social networking site also chose blue for its logo.

While research conducted in 2011 showed that children of both sexes up to the age of three had no preference for pink or blue, toddlers and older children are surprisingly quick to ascribe to group ‘norms’

 Evaluation of colour depends on context

As a consumer, I hardly ever buy yellow clothing, but bananas, grapefruit and lemons nearly always end up in my supermarket shopping basket. All of us perceive colours thousands of times a day, evaluating the context and taking a course of action based on our judgement.

In branding terms, the planning of colours should definitely be considered, as research suggests up to 90% of a consumer’s snap decision about a product could be based on colour evaluation, depending on the product. Consumer decisions based on colour seem to depend largely on whether the colour(s) is a good match for the product - or brand. Aligning colour to the personality of the brand, rather than conforming to stereotypes, can lead to higher success rates.

Another fascinating insight is that our decisions may be further influenced by the way colours are described (aka sold). Recent research showed test subjects with two identical colour Swatches and asked them to choose one. One was labelled ‘brown’ and the other ‘mocha’. No prizes for guessing which swatch subjects found significantly more attractive.

Consistency vs ‘standing out’

Google Data Centre

Multi-coloured pipes in a Google datacentre. The Google logo was originally designed by founder, Sergey Brin and has since developed into the ‘Google Doodle’ - a cultural phenomenon that suggests you don’t need visual consistency to have a consistent brand. 

While some of the most longstanding and visible brands in the world make a strong case for absolute consistency of colour in their branding (even thinking the word ‘Coca-Cola’ can create a mental image of the classic red and white can in our minds), it’s possible that in the future, brand and product colour choice may become increasingly aligned with the sophisticated and ever-changing preferences and values of the end-user or consumer.

Brands which lead with a more imaginative approach to colour may be gaining a unique advantage – by representing choice, diversity and variety. Google’s logo – and the ‘Google Doodle’ spin-off – supports the theory that you don’t have to have to use colour (or anything else) consistently to have a consistent brand.

One of the world’s leading graphic design firms, Sagmeister & Walsh, developed a sophisticated identity for Porto’s Casa da Musica (concert hall), in which the architectural form of the building itself becomes a chameleon-like logo with no set colour rules. Instead the identity has continuously evolved and adapted with a vibrant stream of colour schemes, treatments and patterns reflecting the diversity of musical styles performed at the concert hall. The project even resulted in a web application that allows staff to generate unique versions of the logo with an unlimited number of variations on a theme.

“Sameness is overrated, the idea that everything needs to be the same works for a few brands and companies and not for everyone else,” according to designer Stefan Sagmeister.

In a commercial world oversaturated with colour, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate businesses and products. As brands have to continuously find new ways to visually represent what they stand for, allowing their customers to help them stand out – by engaging their diverse tastes and imagination - may even become commonplace. 

Sameness Is Overrated

“Sameness is overrated, the idea that everything needs to be the same works for a few brands and companies and not for everyone else” – Stefan Sagmeister. Identity concept for Casa da Musica, Porto.