To help you stand out with the design of your billboards and other print advertising we have compiled a guide to how colour psychology is used in advertising.
Colour is an integral part of your advertising design. By using different colours, you can direct the viewer’s eye, emphasise important aspects or information, and strongly or subtly influence your audience’s reaction. Your colour choices set the mood of your print advertising and are a complex, but very accessible, tool for evoking a range of emotions in viewers.
Learn the basics of colour theory and how to trigger emotional responses with your advertising design by adding a layer of feeling through colour, tones and hues.
Introduction to colour theory
Before delving into how colours connect with emotions, it is important to understand the basics of colour theory. Colours can be divided into three levels: primary, secondary and tertiary colours.
Yellow, red and blue are the three primary colours. Mixing two of them half and half gives the secondary colours purple, green and orange. On the colour wheel, these are among the primary colours. Tertiary colours are created by adding more of one primary colour than the other. This results in something closer to the primary colour and names like blue-green or red-orange.
Colour wheel with the primary colours yellow, red and blue at 12, 4 and 8 o’clock. Secondary and tertiary colours are in between (image source).
Primary, secondary and tertiary colours are highly saturated and are called pure colours or hues. Look at their intensity and brightness.
Shades, shadows and tones
Other additives to the pure colours create tints, shades and tones
- Matiz: lighter, paler, less intense colours created by mixing a pure colour with white. The tints are often called pastel colours.
- Shade: darker, duller colours created by mixing a pure colour with black.
- Hue: the addition of black and white, and therefore grey, to a pure colour creates a hue. Adding different levels of black and white quickly reduces the intensity of a colour.
Warm and cool
Watch the impact of colour temperature on these images. If you’re still wondering how colour psychology is used in advertising, take a look at these aspects.
Colours on the right side of the colour wheel are generally perceived as warm. Yellow, orange and red can add warmth to your design. The blue and green colours on the left are cool colours and can add a chilling effect to your printed poster.
Emotional responses. How colour psychology is used in advertising
We all have different reactions to certain colours, just as we all have different preferences. However, there are generalities about how colour stimulates us and, whether we realise it or not, we associate key concepts with certain colours. Therefore, in your poster design you can provoke an emotional response through your choice of colours. This will answer your question of how colour psychology is used in advertising.
We associate vitality, warmth and energy with the stimulating colour red. It is powerful, dynamic and physical, and the sight of pure red can increase arousal and blood pressure. Red makes us think of love and affection, but also of blood and fear. You can use red to create an energising and warming effect, a powerful presence or to attract attention. However, this colour is also a stop sign and can communicate aggression, warning and danger.
The most cheerful colour of the spectrum, yellow triggers a range of emotions. We associate sunshine, warmth, welcome, joy, energy, happiness, brightness and intellect with yellow. It symbolises creativity, as well as optimism, joy or enlightenment. Yellow has a long wavelength, so it is very visible and easy to see. You can use it to instil confidence, inspiration, happiness, self-esteem, creativity, kindness and generally to lift the spirit of things. However, too much yellow can lead to irritation, anxiety, anger or frustration.
Notice how the use of the colour blue provokes a sense of loneliness, coldness and anxiety. Movie poster for Gravity.
Blue represents tranquillity, security, trust, reliability and peace. We associate the colour with loyalty, calm, intellect and often masculinity. Blue has a calming effect and evokes a much more intense mental response than red. It makes us think of water, freshness and air, and helps us to concentrate and focus. Unfortunately, “feeling blue” doesn’t have a great connotation and connotes distance, loneliness and coldness, so avoid too much blue in your design.
Welcoming and stimulating, orange combines the strength and energy of red with the cheerfulness and positivity of yellow. Our response to this colour is full of warmth, motivation, enthusiasm, fun, freedom, courage, kindness and success. Use it to stimulate and infuse freshness, joy, sensuality and energy. Too much orange can be perceived as bland, ignorant or lazy.
Green fuses the yellow of the sun with the blue of water in a colour we associate with balance, harmony, nature and growth. It also balances both the emotional and the logical and is the colour that appears most often in nature. The sight of green is calming, restorative, soothing and refreshing to the eye. Green comforts us and allows us to calm down or relax. Green can represent health, freshness, the earth and the environment, healing and hope. However, negative connotations include envy, jealousy, guilt and greed.
You can create dramatic effects with purple: it symbolises luxury, royalty, nobility, wealth, ambition and loyalty. It also combines the physical and the spiritual and can provoke thought, contemplation, creativity and imagination. The energy of purple is soothing, but it focuses attention inward, on wonder and introspection. It is the colour of magic and mystery, but the wrong shades can look cheap. Don’t overdo purple.
The pink is a tint of red and therefore also has a physical effect, but is more calming than stimulating. This lower intensity can evoke compassion, happiness, warmth and tranquillity. We associate love and infatuation with pink, but it is also an overused colour in pop culture and too much pink can seem immature or exhausting. Use pink appropriately to show affection, understanding and compassion. We often think of wholesome, sweet and playful things when we see pink.
Although the brown colour does not stand out in this advertisement, it fits perfectly with the “wood” theme by creating a sense of reliability and security.
Tones of brown evoke sensual feelings: chocolate, coffee, earth. At the same time, brown is more grounding than uplifting, offering comfort, protection, security, support and structure. Brown makes us feel serious or belonging and invokes reliability. On the negative side, brown can appear reserved, dogmatic or conservative
It is quite easy to create strong contrasts with black and evoke strong reactions through dramatic effects. Black can introduce elegance, sophistication, seriousness, control or even independence. Use black for high contrast, high legibility and strong contours. You can convey authority, power, class, formality and strength with black, but too much can overwhelm, depress and create sadness or emptiness. Remember that black is very reserved because it is the absence of all colours. Black speaks powerfully in comforting enclosures and as professionalism, but avoid associations of melancholy or death.
In poster design, white areas lack printed colour. Use white to de-clutter, bring mental clarity, clean surfaces and a sense of purity, freshness, innocence or goodness. We associate cleanliness, peace, new beginnings, refreshment, air, open space and health with white. It can create balance, equality and simplicity, highlighting a concept or idea. Too much white space can create ideas of isolation, emptiness, loneliness or unthought out design.
To find out a little more about how colour psychology is used in advertising visit our colour psychology section and go through each of them.
How to choose colour combinations wisely
When you have a clear concept for your print poster design, it should be fairly straightforward to choose a colour that best matches the type of emotional response you want to elicit from your target audience. Combining individual colours can be a little trickier: you need to contrast, balance or harmonise the colours appropriately, so that they contribute to the overall effect, while still standing out with your poster.
In general, high contrast is a good choice for important content. Go for visibility and readability, but keep in mind that if everything is high contrast, nothing can stand out. To get the best effects, you have to learn to master the art of creating a colour scheme that gives you contrast options, as well as balance and harmony, while keeping things to a minimum.
Choose your palette to use colour psychology in your advertising
The colour wheel is your starting point for building a poster colour palette. Keeping colour schemes simple is a safe bet, so choose 2 or 3 colours. This is one of the pillars of knowing how to use colour psychology in advertising.
Two colours with opposite positions on the colour wheel are called complementary colours. Their missing part is on the other side of the wheel, thus creating an attraction. If you look at the primary colour blue, you will see that it is complementary to orange, which is made up of the primary colours yellow and red. If blue is added, it is complete. Similarly, yellow and purple and red and green are opposites. Complementary colours allow you to build basic palettes. When designing your poster, stick to a ratio where the primary colour dominates, approximately 7:3.
To give you more options, you can create your colour palette by splitting the complementary colour. Choose a primary colour and then add the two colours adjacent to its opposite colour to your selection. If red is your primary colour, you can use green-blue and green-yellow as your two complementary colours. These palettes have less tension, but still offer enough excitement for the eye and the ability to evoke dynamic and meaningful responses.
If you are looking for more subdued and harmonious responses, you can choose related colours that reside next to each other on the colour wheel. These won’t clash as opposites and are great for pleasing and relaxing posters with a balance. To go further in one direction, choose a primary colour and create a palette with its shades, shadows and tones. This monochromatic approach can be used alone or contrasted with a complementary colour.
For more sophisticated colour combinations, place the shape of a triangle, rectangle or square within the colour wheel and use the three or four colours at the respective corners, such as orange, red, blue and green. Again, proportion is important: avoid visual noise by choosing a dominant colour, and using the remaining colours to highlight. Psychologically, a combination of triangles is more stable while offering vibrant colours.
With guidance on how colour psychology is used in advertising, you should now be able to evoke the emotional responses you want from your audience with your printed posters. Be sure to also read our article on how to stand out with great advertising design and let us know in the comments how you use colour in your print marketing and advertising campaigns.