Color plays a crucial role in visual communication: It instantly stimulates our senses and elicits an emotional response. But in order to evoke the right mood, you need to understand the basics of color psychology.
To learn more, we spoke to Leatrice Eiseman, who heads the Eiseman Center for Color Information and Training. Eiseman, a color expert with 25 years of color consulting experience, is also the Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute and author of eight books on color.
Read on for some helpful tips, along with inspirational color palettes, that will help you match colors and moods to elicit new emotions.
First, Define the Mood
According to Eiseman, you must first think about the mood and message you want to convey to consumers. Who is your target audience, and what needs are you fulfilling with your product?
For marketing to be truly effective, Eiseman recommends using colors that correlate with whatever consumer need or want that your product fulfills. Each color family has its own emotional meanings and psychological associations, so it’s useful to be aware of them—this way, you can pick a color that aligns with your product’s message.
Cool Colors (blue, green)
Blue and green are cool colors that have a refreshing, calming feel to them. Why? Because we universally associate them with the sky, water, and nature. If your product promises cool refreshment, try using colors like turquoise, green, aqua, or blue; think of mint-flavored gum—it’s usually in blue or green packaging.
Blue typically feels trustworthy and reliable but, depending on the shade, it can also feel dramatic (royal blue), childlike (baby blue), or upscale (Tiffany Blue — the famous robin’s egg blue).
Green is usually associated with nature and plants, so it feels fresh. Depending on the shade, it can also feel lush and elegant (emerald green), calming (seafoam green), or energetic (kelly green).
Warm Colors (red, orange, yellow)
Meanwhile, eye-catching colors like red, orange, and yellow are warm colors. We associate them with the heat of fire and sunshine, and they feel decidedly more energetic.
Red feels stimulating and passionate, even aggressive; orange feels playful and childlike; yellow feels cheerful and mellow. Together, warm colors evoke feelings of comfort, warmth, and happiness.
Pink & Purple
If your product promises a sweet fragrance or taste, or it has an overall delicate feel to it, Eiseman suggests trying colors like ballet slipper pink, lavender, lilac, and peach. These light colors feel romantic, soft, feminine, and tender.
Purple conveys a sense of spirituality and, if darkened, majesty and royalty. If you’re looking for a meditative and transcendent mood, try adding more midtone shades of purple.
Black embodies elegance, luxury, prestige, and sophistication; think American Express Black Card, black-tie attire, and black limousines. It also feels tremendously powerful, authoritative, and strong—even steely and intimidating. Eiseman suggests the most effective “power” color combination is black paired with another hue, like yellow (reminiscent of stinging insects), deep blue, or a dark, charcoal gray.
We associate pure white with purity, cleanliness, innocence, and simplicity. Pure white can feel cold and stark, but off-white shades like cream or eggshell feel warm, soft, and rich. If you add slight red or yellow undertones (warm colors), white can feel friendlier.
Neutrals are colors like gray, beige, cream, and taupe. According to Eiseman, they feel classic, reliable, and timeless because they are associated with the durability of ancient buildings and monuments. If you’re looking to promote dependability or durability for your brand, try using neutrals — unlike other trendy colors, they’ll never go out of style.
Bonus — 4 General Tips That Will Work Across All Color Families:
1. Use Multiple Senses to Pick Colors
Eiseman recommends thinking about other senses, like taste, to inform your color palette. For example, let’s say you want to evoke feelings of energy and zest. What are some zesty, tangy foods? You might think of pink grapefruit, pomegranate, and tart berries. Therefore an energetic, lively color palette might include hot, fiery reds; citrusy oranges; bold, juicy pinks; and vibrant, tangy lemon yellows—notice how they’re all warm colors.
By connecting multiple senses, like vision and taste, color becomes an even more powerful tool. “If you can combine at least two of those elements together, you really know that you’ve got something great going on that’ll stop people in their tracks,” says Eiseman.
2. Adjust Value to Convey Power
To make a color feel more or less powerful, try adjusting the value—how dark or light the color is.
The light, icy blue in the left image feels gentle, tranquil, and quiet. But the deep, dark blue of the sky in the right image feels much more powerful. “Navy blue is a much more serious color; it’s more of a power color,” says Eiseman. As an example, she says, think about the uniforms for authoritative figures like policemen and airline pilots—they’re often navy blue.
She says this tip works across all color families—the darker a color, the more power it conveys. A burgundy is more powerful than a light pink; a deep charcoal gray is more commanding than a dove gray.
3. Adjust Saturation to Convey Excitement
To make a color feel more exciting, try adjusting the saturation (the color intensity). Fully saturated colors are vivid and rich because they have no gray in them. Less saturated colors have gray undertones, so they are muted and soft.
The rose on the left is a pale, grayed out pink that feels soft and romantic. Meanwhile, the potatoes on the right are fully saturated, creating a bold, brilliant hot pink. When pink is this bright, it conveys a fun—even wild—mood.
4. Use Iridescent or Metallic Textures to Draw Attention
According to Eiseman, our eyes are fascinated by multi-colored effects. So when we see iridescent or metallic finishes, we find them particularly striking.
It’s important to remember that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to color. Color trends are always changing, but Eiseman has a few tips to get ahead of them. “I’m always telling people to go to the movies — particularly the animated films, because they are wildly creative with their use of color,” she says. She also recommends paying attention to the worlds of fashion and ready-to-wear tech gadgetry—who are the top designers, and what colors are they using in their designs?
And finally, her advice to designers when it comes to picking colors: “Don’t second guess yourself—any designer knows what this is like. It’s good to be intelligent about your color choice, but don’t make yourself so crazy about what your instinct and good eye told you to begin with.”
Experiment with color using Shutterstock Editor, which lets you quickly and easily edit images from the Shutterstock collection before you download. Get vibrant, saturated hues with the Nickel filter, or soft, romantic ones with Palladium. Opt for the retro, washed-out Titanium, or go for classic with the black and white Carbon filter.
Please leave a comment below if you found this post useful, and check out another blog on color psychology here!