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The importance of colour in design

By Kelvin Sprague
December 17, 2021

What’s your favourite colour? Probably not a question you get asked much anymore but one we frequently remember asking and indeed being asked as a child. Don’t mistake our intentions but that particular question has very little place in design. That is unless you are specifically developing a brand around a singular person and the colour in question is a reflection of that person’s identity.

So although we shouldn’t be asking, “What’s your favourite colour?”, as a designer, that doesn’t mean that colour shouldn’t be a major factor in our final designs. Colour can influence mood and create a feeling. And more often than not in design, we are trying to inspire an emotive response.

Technical aspects of colour

There are many technical aspects that make up a colour including its hue, saturation and brightness. Colour can be defined in CMYK values for print and RGB values on screen. There are also special process colours available to us as designers, including fluorescents and metallics. But in this article, we are going to focus purely on the emotional reactions colours can inspire in the viewer.


It is important to create engagement with your customers/clients. This can be achieved many different ways – a strong product, useful services, a relatable message – but never lose sight of how emotive colour can be and the power it has in enforcing your message.

Colour creates an immediate emotional response and as such engages the viewer on an almost primal level. So let’s look at some of the core colours we have grown up with and both the positive and negative connotations and associations of each:


Red is indicative of passion, love, excitement, warmth, heat, and stimulation. It is an incredibly bold and strong colour, stirring strong emotions with provocation and seduction. But it can create negative undertones in the forms of anger, envy, aggression and defiance.


Orange is often seen as a creative, bright, happy, joyous colour. It is fun and warm with a subtle sensuality, offering comfort and security with its warmth. However, the fun could be seen as frivolous, trivial or immature.


Yellow Is exuberant and extrovert. It exudes confidence and self-esteem whilst seeming creative and friendly. Yet yellow can also be interpreted as irrational, anxious, induce fear and depression.


Green is harmonious, offering balance, rest and growth in abundance. It calms the soul, offering peace and refreshment. Green has become synonymous with ecology and for obvious reasons is intrinsically linked to the Earth. On a negative note, it can be boring, bland and stagnant. It is also a colour that can go very flat in CMYK print if not given due care and attention.


Blue, like green, can be interpreted as a calming colour, reflecting serenity – not surprising given the obvious links to the sea and sky. It is also linked to intelligence, trust, efficiency and logic. However, these last traits can develop into an aloofness, a lack of emotion and coldness that may harm a brand.


Purple is the colour of spirituality, the cosmos, and as such is the stuff of dreams. It fires the imagination and vision. It has long been associated with luxury, quality, authenticity and truth. But this could be seen as decadence as well as suppression, giving a sense of inferiority.


Pink, like the colour red, has strong connotations with love, femininity, sensitivity and sexuality. Its strong association with femininity leads to feelings of nurture, warmth and physical tranquility. Although this very reason can lead to negative associations such as emasculation, over-emotionality and physical weakness.


Brown is the very earth in which we toil, the trees that grow. It is reliable, supporting and warm. Synonymous with nature it is serious and solid. But the colour brown is lacking in humour and can be dull and seen as boring. Unless like us, you were born of the seventies.


The colour grey is psychological neutrality. It offers stability, security and authority. Grey offers a maturity and strength of character to a brand. On the negative side it lacks energy, can be seen as depressing, damp and lacking in confidence.


White is a clean slate, a blank page, it is hygienic and sterile. It is simplicity itself, offering both sophistication and purity. But white can also be seen as an impenetrable barrier, cold, aloof, elitist.


The little black dress, black is glamour, sophistication, emotional safety and offers substance. It also carries great weight, a heaviness, menace and oppression.

Colours defined

All of the definitions above are guides only and are not set in stone. A bold magenta could never be accused of lacking strength or being overtly feminine. Likewise, a lime green is hardly bland. Any of the colours listed above are just a starting block, a base line if you will, to act as a rough guide.

Colours vary so greatly in hues, saturation and brightness, and as such their whole perception can shift significantly. Powder pink to bold cerise. A midnight blue to a punchy cyan. Or vibrant lime green to a sophisticated British racing green.

Think carefully about who your target audience is, and think about what colours may mean to them. Browns and oranges may be interpreted entirely differently to someone who lived through the 70’s. Red has a very significant implication to someone of Chinese origin.

As with every aspect of design, colour should be carefully thought through and help tell the story of a brand, adding weight and conviction to all of the elements so that the whole is fully relatable to the consumer. So, as with every considered element in design – colour matters.

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