The Language of Color

Every new year comes with predictions for “it” colors and the reasons why they were chosen. What the colors are meant to signify. What kind of meaning we can derive. This month, as we sift through the prognostications, and observe color in the world around us, we are reminded of the powerful ability of color to speak…without saying a word.

A woman holds a fanned-out set of various color card samples.

Let’s start with Purple. Inaugural Purple. The color of choice for our Madame Vice President, and former First Ladies. Much has been written about the significance of this choice, particularly about its representation of unity – a bipartisan blending of The Blue and The Red. But there is so much more to this color story. According to color psychology experts, purple “symbolizes power, nobility, luxury and ambition. It represents dignity, independence and grace, as well as has a calming effect on the mind and body.”1 In addition, purple is one of the official colors of women’s suffrage2 and though a color unpopular with men, it happens to be one they associate with courage.3 Finally, purple is thought to stand out well in social media.4 Clearly, on this day, color was a highly strategic choice.

Next, there’s the Pandemic Rainbow. The colors proposed for motivation and wellness in this year of our Lord-Help-Us 2021:

A swatch of Pantone's colors of the year for 2021: ultimate gray and illuminating yellow.

  • Ultimate Gray + Illuminating Yellow: Pantone’s recommendation for promoting “strength and optimism.”5 
  • Orange and Red: color suggestions from food and beverage manufacturers to “awaken consumers’ energy for renewal”6 and “cue vitality and create passion and positive action.”7
  • Bright colors: to “prompt feelings of happiness and excitement”, blue hues to “evoke feelings of calm”, and colors that “signal health and immune function support”, e.g., deep reds, citrusy shades and greens.8

In addition to giving us the feels, color drives consumers to act, which is why it plays such an important role in branding. Color can “influence up to 90% of a first impression”9, and is one of several devices used to convey brand personality and uniqueness, two factors that can help drive preference. In fact, color is thought to impact 85% of shopper purchase decisions.10

Aside from careful consideration of how colors can make consumers think, feel and behave, we have some practical recommendations for marketers from JTM Creative Director Matt McKenzie and Associate Design Director Nancy Hope:

  • If your color palette is similar to the palette of your competitors (as some industries tend to follow convention, e.g., red, white and blue in banking), look to create visual differentiators other than color in order to stand out (e.g., logo, font, package shape, etc.)
  • Be open to secondary colors, those colors within your palette that provide contrast to the main colors. Without a proper range and contrast, colors will blend together. This same holds true for branded food photography, where a punch of contrasting color prevents food from looking bland.
  • Be prepared to keep your main colors static, but evolve your secondary colors as needed – especially in digital media, where you must uniquely consider context and how you advance or recede based on all of the other colors around you.
  • Since color trends come and go, seek colors with longevity.
  • If your colors are iconic – an everlasting identifier of the brand – stay put.

1 “The Psychology of Colors”, ebook by Hailey van Braam, 12/07/20.
2 “A fashion psychologist explains why purple was the perfect inauguration color”, Harper’s Bazaar, 1/21/20
3 “Color code: What color is brave?”, AIGA
4 “Instagrammable shades amongst the hottest trends in natural colors”, Food Navigator, 11/18/20
5 “Why Pantone Selected Not One but Two Colors of the Year for 2021”, Time, 12/09/20
6 “Rising Orange: Sensient Technologies 2021 Color for the Year symbolizes consumers’ pursuit of renewal and optimism”, Food Navigator, 12/15/20
7 “Color trend alert: Red to reinvigorate food and beverage category in 2021”, Food Navigator, 11/25/20
8 “Eat the rainbow: ADM expects consumers to explore their palate’s comfort zones in 2021”, Food Navigator, 12/03/21
9 “63+ Color Psychology Facts for Your Branding and Marketing Projects in 2020”, Review 42, 11/21/20
10 “63+ Color Psychology Facts for Your Brand and Marketing Projects in 2020”, Review 42, 11/21/20