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The role of color psychology in design

If I ask you what color represents Coca-Cola, what’s the first one that comes to mind? What about McDonald’s, Starbucks, or Facebook?

I’m guessing you answered red, yellow (and red), green, and blue.

There’s a reason why these famous brands stick to their iconic colors, and it’s called color psychology.

Throughout nature, animals use color to communicate with one another — whether they’re trying to scare away an enemy or attract a mate. And humans are no different.

Colors are, quite literally, everywhere we look. We use color to distinguish objects from one another, signify when to stop and go, and figure out what to focus on.

Colors trigger emotions, and emotions are the driving force behind our actions, so it makes sense for brands to tap into this instinctive part of our brains and influence our behavior. In fact, one study estimates that color influences up to 95% of our purchase decisions.

Color psychology is an aspect of graphic design that’s rarely talked about yet is widely applied by the world’s most recognizable brands. They use color to project the image they want to maintain in the market and, in the most successful cases, make a lasting impact on people’s minds for generations to come.

This article will introduce the concept of color psychology and provide an overview of how color choices can create a brand identity that stands out and drives sales.

What is color psychology?

Color psychology may sound like a hippie-dippy New Age concept, but it’s actually been around for thousands of years. The Ancient Egyptians believed colors could affect our minds and bodies and used them to complement medical interventions.

Five millennia later, transpersonal psychologist Carl Jung became the pioneer of modern color psychology, further developing the concept and popularizing color therapy in the 1960s.

Color psychology studies how different colors and color combinations affect our mental processes, behavior, and decisions. While some commentators dismiss the theories behind it, scientists believe that the emotions associated with a certain color — say, red and anger — may be caused by its electromagnetic frequency.

But there’s more to color psychology than just electromagnetic wavelengths. Other factors, such as upbringing, cultural background, and personal tastes, all influence how we perceive and react to colors.

For example, in western cultures, white may represent purity, innocence, or peace. By contrast, in India and other Asian countries, the color white is associated with mourning.

There are also gendered differences in color preferences, with men and women perceiving colors in different ways (although there are cultural differences across genders, too). Many studies have concluded that both men and women prefer cool colors, such as blue and green, but that women have additional preferences for pink, purple, and red hues.

As a designer, understanding color psychology is essential — not just for labels and logo design but also in product design. For example, a pill designed to help you sleep may be blue, while a non-drowsy hayfever medication might be red or yellow for an energizing effect.

Therefore, it’s essential to choose colors that align with the company’s mission and elicit a response from its target customers while also anticipating cultural differences and gendered preferences.

Color associations

There are three main categories of color: warm, cool, and neutral. Each color can either be used alone or in combination with others to transmit a particular image or message.

For example, a luxury cosmetic brand for women might use white, gold, and pink as its brand colors. Gold would signify luxury, white would create a clean, minimalist effect, and pink would signal that the brand is targeting women.

Expert designers know how to combine colors effectively and create the client’s desired outcomes. So let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular colors and the emotions associated with them so you can choose the right color for every project you work on.

Warm colors

Red, orange, and yellow, along with their tertiary colors, are warm colors. Warm colors are passionate, energizing, and enthusiastic, which is why they’re popular among brands that want to promote a strong, dynamic image.


One of the most evocative colors, the color red is associated with passion, excitement, love, and desire. In more muted shades, it also has connotations of comfort and warmth.

On the negative side of the emotional spectrum, it can bring out a sense of danger, urgency, or violence — think stop signs and red traffic lights.


Yellow is the color of sunshine, and as a result, it’s strongly associated with happiness, joy, energy, and enlightenment.  

In its brighter shades, however, yellow can also stand for danger and urgency — which is why it’s often the color of construction vehicles.


As a combination of the joy associated with yellow and the energy of red, orange is a favorite with brands that want to foster a sense of enthusiasm and fun.

Food and drink brands use orange to encourage their consumers to indulge. It represents vitality and amusement, although it can sometimes come off as insincere.

Cool colors

Green, blue, and purple, along with their tertiary colors, are the cool colors. Overall, they transmit a more muted, reserved, luxurious, and calming vibe compared to warm colors.

This makes them a natural choice for brands wanting to project an image of calm, stability, and reliability.


A naturally abundant color, green stands for renewal, prosperity, health, new beginnings, and organic products.

It’s a color that signifies calm, harmony, and balance — hence its use in “green rooms,” where celebrities relax and prepare for TV appearances.

On the flip side, green is associated with jealousy (the green-eyed monster) and greed due to its association with the dollar bill. Dark green, in particular, is tied to material ambition.


As the color of the sky and ocean, blue can stand for tranquility, calm, composure, and relaxation. Due to its popularity, blue has long been a preferred color of choice for brands.

This also makes it a somewhat conservative option, although it can be used to reflect dependability, for example, in the financial sector.

Blue means different things in different countries. For example, in the US, blue is the color associated with liberal political values, while in the UK, it represents the conservative viewpoint.


Purple is a rare color in nature, and making purple dyes used to be an expensive affair — hence its association with wealth and luxury. Elite chocolate brands, high-end toiletries, and designer clothing brands all prefer purple.

Due to its natural scarcity, it has also come to stand for mystery, intrigue, and magic, which explains its popularity among brands of a spiritual nature.

Neutral colors

Black, white, gray, and brown/beige are the neutral colors. Often used as accent colors to add depth to a design, neutral colors can also stand alone with their own meanings and messages.


Depending on the cultural context, white can represent healthcare, cleanliness, and purity, among others. It works well in minimalist designs and can also represent both summer and winter.


Black has a plethora of connotations, from evil and death to mystery, luxury, and sophistication. It’s also the standard color of typography.


Gray is the color of professionalism, formality, and sophistication. It’s popular among brands whose target audience is predominantly male, as well as being common in corporate designs.

Brown and beige

Brown and beige are associated with Earth and nature, so they represent comfort and dependability, as well as eco-friendly and sustainable products. Brands use them as background colors to represent natural materials such as wood or stone.

How many colors should I use?

A minimalist one-color design can make your brand iconic. However, creating a color palette based on color combinations can be just as effective — it all depends on the brand’s objectives. Use this guide to help you decide how many colors to use in your design.

Single-color designs

Single colors are minimalist, simple to understand, and specific to their target audiences.

A single-color design is a great way to tap into a specific demographic — say, pink for a women’s self-care product. However, they’re less effective if you’re looking for a broader appeal.

Two-color designs

The golden rule for using two-color designs is not to make both equally prominent, as a 50-50 distribution doesn’t facilitate brand recall.

Instead, choose one as your dominant color, and use the other sparingly to accentuate your message.

Three-color designs

The same logic extends to three or more colors — start with one dominant color, then choose secondary and tertiary colors in decreasing order of emphasis. This makes your design easy to look at and enhances recall.

Use color psychology to build your design business

Color psychology is as relevant and effective today as it was back in Ancient Egypt. As a designer, applying color psychology can help you attract your dream clients and seriously impress them with your design skills.

Looking for more ways to uplevel your design career? Join the #PlaybookCommunity — our space where designers can come together to learn and grow.

In it, you’ll find tons of tips and resources for creating memorable designs, as well as illustrations by top artists that you can download and use for free.