The Power of Color

    April 16, 2002

Colors have many meanings and associations. They can also create, or amplify, emotion. For example, which would you associate with bright yellow: happy or sad? Serious or playful? Good or bad? Chances are that you chose happy, playful, and good. Why? Because color speaks, whether we realize it consciously or not.

Now, would yellow be a good dominant color choice for a all- men’s country club sitting room where fat rich guys sit around in wingback chairs, and smoke expensive cigars? No, because the image and emotions that the color yellow brings to mind are not consistent with those that the country club brings to mind.

What words and images are associated with the club? Serious. Business. Money. Rich. Oak. Mahogany. Think: dark, subdued, rich colors. Navy blue. Wine. Forest green. Deep brown.

Your choice of a dominant color should reflect the message or feeling you to hope to convey to the viewer.

Red – Red is hot. It is used to convey love, urgency, passion, blood, intensity, aggression, and competition. Because of its “volatility”, it is probably best used as an accent color. Red usually does not go well with greens or purples of the same intensity, so if you use red with these colors, alter the brightness or intensity. Red goes very well with oranges and yellow — just think about how beautiful a sunset is.

Blue – Blue conveys honesty, truth, loyalty, power, coolness, health, harmony, and confidence. Blue is a safe choice for most uses, and goes well with most other colors. Be careful when using blue with orange, it can be visually irritating. However, a large field of blue can be very effectively accented by a small orange accent. Don’t use blue if your site is food or drink related, since there are very few blue foods and drinks.

Beige and Gray – These are neutral colors. As neutrals, they can be combined with virtually any other color and still come across well. Both make for very readable backgrounds, but be sure to accent it with splashes of bright colors, or the site will seem drab. You can also accent beige or gray with dark colors. Instead of “waking up” the site as a bright accent would, dark accents on beige or gray create a distinguished, professional look.

Black – Black can imply death, seriousness, heaviness, rebellion, evil, power, and mystery. However, black is very useful in isolating things, especially graphic images. So, if your site concerns, say, color choice for web site palettes, black can make colors “pop”.

Yellow – Yellow has been touched upon already. It is a happy color. In addition to happiness, depending upon context, yellow can also convey brightness, caution, optimism, idealism, cowardice, and imagination. Too much yellow can be hard on the eyes, and can tend to get on viewer’s nerves. As with reds, be careful using yellow with greens and purples of the same intensity — tone down one or the other.

Green – Green connotes youth, fertility, growth, money, ecology, nature, health, safety, healing, cheerfulness, and food. However, to other viewers, it may connotes envy, insects, and reptiles. This said, perhaps green is best suited as a secondary or accent color.

Brown – Brown implies simplicity, durability, earthiness, comfort, and stability. However, like the neutral grays and beiges, a site that is mostly brown can be very boring. However, a site that had a light brown/beige background, a rich brown secondary color, and bright or dark red accents can look very professional.

The bottom line: don’t choose your colors too quickly, because they have a larger impact on your site’s viewers than you might realize.

Try this simple test: write down a list of about ten or fifteen words and images that “fit” with your site or product. Next, open your favorite graphics editor and create a black background fill. On the black background, create a color block image using your site’s proposed colors. Try to use proportionate amounts of the colors. For example, if your site has a light blue background with orange accents, then the light blue block should be the largest, and the orange the smallest.

After you’ve drawn all your blocks, click the “full-screen” option (normally under the “View” pull-down menu). Grab a pen, a paper, and a friend or coworker. Have your friend stare at the image and write down as many words and images that pop into his or her head as fast as possible. Now, compare this list to your list of words and images associated with your site. If you’ve made correct color choices, the lists should be almost identical.

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