The Psychology Behind Colour
The impressionist painter Claude Monet is credited for saying, “Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” And I get it – not the torment part, but how the amazing phenomenon of colour that’s all around us can have such a powerful impact on our every living moment.
From the minute we wake up to make our morning cuppa and decide what clothes to wear, we are making colour choices. It doesn’t matter if we’re at home, work, shopping, dining out or crossing the road. We are constantly reacting to colour cues, making thousands of decisions based on colour every day, with around 80 per cent of them being subconscious.
My obsession with colour is based on how it can change the way we feel about ourselves and others in an instant. This has led me to specialise in the widely researched but little-known field of applied colour and design psychology. This is the study of how colour and design influences how we think, feel and how we behave. My focus is on human-centred design and how we can harness this to create positive change, wellbeing and mental health. I consult with companies on their branding, products and packaging or, say, the tones used in hospital waiting rooms, using colour to create positive workspaces and train industry designers in behavioural design.
Colour is often dismissed as something purely visual, decorative or pretty. But it is much more than that. It creates physiological changes within us. In psychological terms, it delivers the all-important emotional experience.
We take in colour before anything else, which means we are already having an emotional connection before we have even taken in the shapes, the design and the carefully crafted words. This is important because creating the right emotional experience is what sells – whether that’s a product, a service, an experience or an ideal.
When we make a purchase, it’s typically because of an emotional reason. Afterwards, we explain our choices to ourselves on the basis of performance, or price, but really we buy because of an emotional want or need. It’s not surprising that up to 85 per cent of our purchasing decisions are based on colour alone. So what does that mean for brands?
As customers, we want to emotionally engage and connect with a brand. The simplest way a company can do this is by aligning its brand personality using the right colours, designs, words and its customer service to communicate a single unified message. When this doesn’t happen, we are left confused by the contradicting messages; we won’t believe them and will likely go elsewhere.
Every business is in the colour business. And that includes politics. Each political party has its chosen colour, making them easy to recognise when they are out campaigning or on TV. However, they are also using their chosen colour to connect to us on that all-important emotional level.
Let’s look at the positive and adverse traits of blue, red and yellow for three of the main political parties. If you believe they have a unified message we’re likely to feel the positive traits. If you sense a contradiction between what they stand for and their actions, we might notice adverse traits.
Conservatives: Dark navy blue represents tradition, knowledge, a sense of duty, loyalty and trust. Some of the negative traits are that a brand or person can seem cold, distant, or showing little emotion.
Labour: Bright red in this context represents anti-establishment, a rebellious streak and fighting for a cause. Red appears nearer than it is, so attracts our attention first – it gets you noticed. The flip side is it can create feelings of overwhelm, strain, anxiousness and defeatism.
Liberal Democrats: Warm clear yellow is the colour of sunshine that lifts our spirits, our self-confidence and self-esteem.
It’s cheery, friendly and welcoming. In this context yellow positively communicates hope and optimism for positive change. Opposing this are feelings of irritation, anxiety and irrationality.
A lot of people think that if you like a colour, you have to go crazy for it – which is also one reason why they pull back from it. We don’t need all the colours around us all the time, but we can choose what we need, when we need it, to give us the support and everyday happiness we crave.
Remember there is no such thing as bad taste. There are no rules except to follow what you love. So trust your instincts and surround yourself with colours that make you feel good and fill your heart with joy.
Karen Haller’s The Little Book of Colour – How to Use the Psychology of Colour to Transform your Life is available now (Penguin Life, £10.99)