Psychology of Colour



The colours present in a user interface can be critical for the success or failure of a web site. When told this people will say “what’s the best colour then.” Well there is no clean cut answer to this one. And from a design view point one has to fall back on “it depends”.

You see colour has a profound effect on our emotions, our well being and psychological response. This is supplemented by the tonal nature of the colours as well and the current environment and lighting you are viewing the site in.

Also there is the cultural, regional and demographical influences as well. One colour for an Anglo audience will have one representative emotion or suggestive message when for a Chinese community it would have a completely unexpected response.

In web design one it not just influenced by not just the primary colour of a web site, but the combination of the main blocks of colour and the influence of the highlights as well, it’s an over all effect. This emotion response from the colours on the siet are usually experienced in the first few seconds of view the site and will influence the over option of the web site.

So what are all these colours

Well I’m not going to go into a massive monologue on the art of colour theory as there are many more better discussion on this than I can provide here. However let’s just look at a number of influences and aspects of colour.

Warm Colours

These are red, orange, and yellow. Basically the fire colours. They evoke emotions involving feelings of warmth, comfort to some of anger and hostility. And again this is very subjective. These are the colours of summer and mix with the cooler colours balanced with the neutral colours leaning towards the warm side of the palette to give the colours of spring.

Cool Colours

Usually the cool colours are the blues, greens and purples, the so called “life” colours. They influence people by making them calm, sad or even indifferent. The cool colours are the colours of winter, but not the dull winter, but a vibrant alive winter, they mix with a lesser amount of the warm colours to form the colours of autumn.

Lets get a little specific.

Now we are beginning to get an understanding of colour and it’s influence lets look at things in a little more detail:

  • Green

    Green helps if the site is focused on nature, well being or fertility, otherwise some people are just repulsed by too much green. In China for instance, green can be associated with exorcism. Where as in the Untied States it’s all to do with money.

    Generally: durability, reliability, safety, honesty, optimism, harmony and freshness.

  • Blue

    This colour is usually measured as peoples favourite colour. It’s meant to focus on calmness and peace, but with darker tones and grey elements it can be sad and sometimes aloof. Has been associated with success and good fortune, in China it is associated with immortality. Globally it is seen as the safe colour.

    Generally: depth, stability, professionalism, loyalty, reliability, honor and trust.

  • Orange

    Now I’m not a fan of this colour at all in large amounts. This colour generates an ideal of warmth or autumn. It’s best used in small amounts as an attention grabbing highlight. Some people see it as an aggressive colour. Avoid dark orange as it can be linked to deceit and mistrust.

    However it is used as a appetite stimulator when used in muted hues. Very handy for food product site.
    Generally: enthusiasm, cheerfulness, affordability, stimulation and creativity.

  • Black

    In western culture it is associated with death, mourning, evil and general nastiness. But it is often seen as neutral colour void of meaning reflecting a nothingness.

    Generally: elegance, sophistication, formality, strength and mystery.

  • White

    In western culture it’s purity and innocence, but in China and Japan in represents death and mourning. White can be seen as cold, bland and without feeling, almost a sense of sterility. So culturally white is one of those colours best avoided.

    Generally: cleanliness, purity, newness, virginity, peace, innocence and simplicity.

  • Brown

    Brown is colour of nature, of strength, warmth, of comfort and an earthy understanding. But it can also be the colour of decay and rot.

    Brown generally needs other colours to enhance it. It can be used for promoting food and outdoor recreational products, but care should be given to highlight it.

    Generally: endurance, relaxing, confident, casual, reassuring and earthy.

  • Red

    This is a very emotional colour. It can evoked a strong emotional response from most people. Red focuses on loving and caring and also the flip side of anger and extreme excitement. In China it is the traditional bridal colour, and represents good luck, where as in Japan it is associated with life and Jewish culture points it towards sin.

    This is one of those, use sparingly colours, as to much bright red will for instance drive people away.

    Generally: strength, boldness, excitement, determination, desire and courage.

  • Purple

    Purple is the focus of royalty, nobility and leadership. Interesting it has been found that most pre-adolescent children like purple to all other colors. Mind you generally people either love purple or hate it. So for an adult audience it’s one to use sparingly. For every instance you think it is sexy, someone else thinks it’s horrid.

    Generally: power, nobility, luxury, mystery, royalty, elegance and magic.

  • Yellow

    Yellow is another cultural minefield colour. From a western view it’s all about energy, vitality and hope to the association of cowardice. When in China it’s associated in royalty and all things imperial. Generally yellow is a stimulating colour, that can inspire on audience. However I would tend to avoid using this colour for any masculine web sites at all costs, as it can be associated with lying, cheating and a general lack of loyalty. People tend to have a low tolerance level for yellow colours.

    Generally: attention-grabbing, comfort, liveliness, intellect, happiness and energy.

So what can we use this all for

Well consider an online store, consider the use of the right colours to promote the expected feelings of trust, sense of community and acceptance. It’s been determined that people will reject a product or service mainly based on the colours used.

We know for instance that:

  • Users that are sticking to a budget respond well to pinks, lighter blues and navy tones as well as teal.
  • Where as traditional shoppers tend to like pastel colours such as rose, light blue, pinks or weak greens.
  • Impulse buyers respond to red or orange highlights with black and the deeper blues.
  • And then younger people respond well to orange and washed out tea browns with cyan highlights.

Of course this list is not going to be totally accurate, I have not even taken into account the latest trends either. As we have seem the psychology of colour is very much influenced by a number of factors and these can vary from person to person. In the main the application of these rules is more an art than a science.

So when one is choosing the colours for a web site it may not just simply come down to tones of the clients corporate colour palette but you have to consider the sites core function and the audience that it is attempting to influence.

Consider next time you decide to change those colours that your designer has spend days researching and optiumising for your design and audience. Just stop and think, is your site really going to look good in hot pink.

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