Lizardbreath Designs
Elizabeth Olmstead


The Science of Choosing Brand Colors

Jan. 26, 2018 | By Elizabeth Olmstead, Owner of Lizardbreath Designs

When choosing colors for your company, it’s not all about which is your favorite color and what you feel looks good; it all comes down to what you want your company to say to your audience. As a corporate designer, I have had experience working with companies who wanted to find their voice and other companies who wanted rebrand their voice.

When I originally branded Lizardbreath Designs, I went with two of my favorite colors. Having known color theory and my college background as a designer, I thought I knew what I wanted to say. I branded with a coral orange and dark blue. Orange is believed to be friendly, energetic, and happy; blue is interpreted as trusted, honest and sincere. These were traits that I wanted to convey. I will go into further detail about the thoughts and beliefs behind choosing the correct colors for your brand. For clarity, we will be talking about additive colors of the CMY (Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow) color wheel as opposed to subtractive colors RGB (Red, Green, and Blue). I will also be including Black and White when discussing monochromatic.

How and why colors are important

Human beings are by nature visual creatures. The human eye is actually an outgrowth of the brain, the eye is made up of one hundred and fifty million light-sensitive rod and cone cells. Half of the human brain is dominantly dedicated to processing visual information directly or indirectly. The human brain processes color images sixty thousand times faster than text, and ninety percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. Images are the easiest thing for the human brain to remember, which is why humans remember logos and pictures more often than text. With this knowledge, it is understandable that the human brain subconsciously correlates certain colors with traits that can be helpful or harmful to one’s brand voice.

How colors interact with each other

The basics in color theory tells us about color themes such as primary, analogous, complementary, triadic, and monochromatic. These themes correspond together naturally to the human eye. Let’s take a closer look at these themes, their definitions, and examples, including popular globally known logos.

Primary colors (not RGB) consist of magenta, yellow, and cyan, or traditionally red, yellow, and blue. Historically primary colors are the foundation to any other color. For example red plus blue is purple, red plus yellow is orange, and yellow plus blue is green. Many companies use the primary color combination because of its primitive and attention-grabbing nature. Some popular examples of this color theme are Burger King, Popeye’s, Sonic, Fosters Beer, and Toy Story.

Green, yellow-green and yellow grouped together is a form of an analogous theme. Can you think of any global companies that use those colors? BP (British Petroleum, or BP Amoco) springs to my mind with their blooming flower that transitions from white in the middle to green on the outer edge.  This type of color theme can work for any cool or warm colors. It also can include tints (mixing white with the saturated hue) and shades (mixing black with the saturated hue) of the colors.

Complementary color themes are by far the most commonly used. Examples of these are blue and orange, red and green, as well as purple and yellow. These colors combinations pop well due to their contrast to one another. However, if they are next to one another in equal proportions they can vibrate and generate ghost colors. The best practice is to have one color as the primary and the complementary color as an accent. A few good examples of these are Firefox, 7/11 convenience stores, Krispy Kreme, and Mountain Dew.

Similarly to complementary and primary color themes, is triadic color themes.  Triadic themes are defined as three complementary or contrasting colors. While the primary color theme could be considered a triadic theme, there are other versions such as split complementary, secondary, and colors found in nature. Tide, Taco Bell, Gatorade, and Fila are all examples of logos using the triadic color themes.

Monochromatic color themes are the use of one color in shades and tints. As before, tints are white mixed with the hue. Shades are the same, except, missing black with the hue. Often the use of analogous colors is confused as a monochromatic. You will come across the use of different hues that are next to one another on the color wheel at full saturation, however, that is not a true monochromatic logo. Even though it isn’t, it does work and often looks natural to the eye. Examples of true monochromatic logos are Cartoon Network, Apple, American Express, WordPress, and AT&T. Some monochromatic logos that aren’t true, but still look natural to the eye are Animal Planet, Holiday Inn, Fabreze, and KitKat.

Understanding the Psychology of Colors and what they say

As we have discussed previously, human beings are visual creatures. This section is about how the human brain correlates consciously and subconsciously colors to moods, messages, and emotions. When looking at the color spectrum we generally have the same overall interpretations of colors. Starting with yellow we will go around the wheel and end with black and white.

Yellow is considered the most joyful color in the spectrum. It says cheerful, warm, inviting, playful and creative and yet we also correlate it with danger, caution, and proceed carefully. Due to the way our eyes have evolved to the UV wavelengths given off by the sun, yellow is the easiest color for the human eye to see. It is attention-grabbing, so many alert signs such as road and toxicity are made in yellow. Because of yellow’s brightness, it doesn’t have a high contrast against a white background. It works well with black, blue, green and purple. These darker colors contrast it well and make yellow pop.

Our next color green, often associated with nature, environment, growth, freshness, and life. Since the invention of automobiles, green has been associated with clear, move freely, and meaning “go”. In recent history, the color green has been associated with eco-friendly companies. Green is often associated with money and wealth. It is also thought to be a calming color, it has a wide range of hues ranging from warm yellow-green to the coolest teal. Green can stand alone or coincide with other colors. It works well with blue, purple, yellow, and orange depending on the hue being used.

Blue is the most widely used color in the world for corporate branding.  It evokes professionalism, serious-mindedness, integrity, sincerity, honesty and dependability. Often it is used by online and financial institutions. Also, by far the most common favorite color among both men and women compared to other colors. Blue is another color that can stand by itself and often does; it plays nicely with red, purple, yellow, orange, and green.

Our last cool color on the wheel is purple. Purple speaks of royalty and luxury; its association with the church has implications of wisdom and dignity. This color was once one of the most expensive colors to replicate and is often viewed as elitist. Purple is a favorite among children and is often used in candy and toy packaging. Like green, purple can range from a warm violet and cool indigo. Purple is a color that can stand by alone due to its darkness in hue. It compliments nicely with red, blue, yellow, orange and green.

Red is often perceived as bold, passionate, strong, aggressive, dangerous and exciting. These perceptions are often attributed to why owners of red cars get pulled over more often than others. Red is another color that easy to see. Along with yellow and orange, red is considered an aggressive color to the human eye. Red has been found to stimulate hunger, thus explaining its use with restaurants. Using red in your logo can make it seem more dynamic, and youthful. Red is a powerful color and can stand alone or be accented by another color, such as yellow, blue, purple, orange, and black.

The next and final warm color is orange. Orange is often seen as a color of innovation, modern thinking, happy, energetic, friendly, affordable, and enthusiastic. Orange has been used in some warning labels. Like red, it is also correlated with stimulating the appetite. Orange is frequently used in online retail as the color for call to action (CTA). Like red, orange is a powerful color. It is not often used as a stand-alone. Orange is typically used alongside other colors such as red, green, blue, purple and black.

When thinking of your brand and its impact, one should also consider what your company is saying on a global scale. Various regions of the world can interpret color meanings differently than others. The western world sees white as pure and innocent while the eastern world sees it as a color of mourning. These decisions, while one may think are small and meaningless, often have a huge impact on your business’ success and what you are trying to convey. We also need to keep in mind color themes, and the huge role they play in how our logos will look finished. In conclusion, we must consider a many factors when choosing colors for our brand’s voice. Have fun and make sure that your colors don’t define your logo but rather enhance the design.