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Category Archives: Communications consulting

Your rainbow needs every color

Photo of a green chalkboard with a child's drawing of a rainbow on it, in white chalk.

I bet you think this post is about multi-culturalism. It’s just about COLOR. Color, that most emotional, important, survival-linked quality, that doesn’t really exist and yet changes our every day. Color that’s used to mark special occasions, to set the tone in space and person. Color that even FOOD needs to be appetizing.

Color, really, for your corporate or non-profit’s identity online.

Most people pick colors for their corporate identities the same way they’d pick a sweater: what do *I like*?

Trust me: you’re nearly always gonna end up with blue. (Blue is the most popular color in the U.S.)

Which sends the powerful message…. That there’s nothing special about us or what we do. We want you to like us. We’re safe. Move right along, folks, nothing to look at here! Most organizations, even non profits, even those who are really uncomfortable with success, would like you to stick around to learn something else about you.

Color is considered a bearer of meaning in its own right — in addition to the words you include on your website, your organization’s name, and your programs. The colors you use can enhance your message — or detract from it.

So why not select from a real rainbow — one with a full range of choices?

Psychological and cultural associations for the rainbow
Here are the common meanings for many pure colors when they are used as a primary element in your corporate palette (using them as an accent doesn’t create as strong an emotional impression):

Red is for passion: love and anger. Red stimulates the senses and escalates feelings. Red is extreme, powerful, and risky. Red is the most visible color, so it’s used to get your attention. Our ancestors knew that red fruit was safe to eat, and to stay away from snakes with red marks. Red is core: the true color of every human’s body.

Pink is not really a separate color from “light red,” but it’s used so widely now, it deserves its own entry. It may be unfair to see pink as “girly,” (those associations were largely built after 1970) but organizations that use clean pinks will have trouble shedding that image. Pink can be sweet or cloying, sincere or disingenuous. Shades of pink from “Pepto-bismol” down to the  pastel shades can be tranquilizing. Brighter pinks like fuschia read as red, only more provocative, sometimes playful.

Orange stimulates the appetite. It’s happy, energetic, warm, and ambitious. Like the other secondary colors (green and purple), it tends to go in and out of fashion frequently and thus, has less stable meaning and associations to most of us.

Yellow is optimistic, it can increase metabolism, appetite, and concentration. Pure yellow should be used sparingly as it can be tiring to look at. Yellow stimulates serotonin.

Green is the color of health and healing. Associated with nature and prosperity, “green” is the only color name that’s currently used as a verb. Green rooms are used to calm people before they appear on TV, and in hospitals and schools.

Blue is the emotional opposite of red: calm, stable. It’s not only the most common choice, but also dominates our planet, evoking both sea and sky. Blues can stimulate productivity, but used in excess, they can be depressing. Blue is widely selected for corporate identities (think IBM) and easy for designers to use, but if your organization depends on people, you may not want to imply blue’s distance and coldness.

Purple was the color of royal robes because red and blue dyes are expensive and hard to use — the pigments don’t always mix well. Purple is rare and unappetizing. Because purple combines the two colors we feel the mostly strongly about — blue, the coldest, and red, the hottest — purple sends the ultimate “mixed message.” People who wear purple are demonstrating their confidence in who they are, but may be seen by others as artificial. This is true also for shades of pink that veer toward purple.

Brown is a very natural family of extremely varied colors. In general, browns are popular with men, and convey reliability and kindness. I tend to think of pure browns as “yucky” but I appreciate them when I seen them used in combination with other colors. Browns are unmatched for “mixing in” with other colors and modulating their intensity.

Black and white are not true colors, but are part of your palette. Black conveys power, white purity. Black and white are the colors whose meanings change the most from one culture to another. For example, while Americans associate black with death, Japanese think of white or purple. In China, foods that are green or black are considered the most healthy, a fact which has not been lost on Coca Cola. Black and white together are easy to understand (text should nearly always be black on a white background) and like browns, are necessary as admixtures to all the other colors, in order to give you a real and full rainbow.

Gray is black and white mixed, neither one thing, nor another. Using a gray as a central color shows that you are indecisive, but grays are incredibly useful and practical in small amounts. When used well, instead of putting you to sleep, grays imply solidity and timelessness.

Maybe this summary has made you hate every color: that might be enough to break you of your personal associations and help you see the bigger picture and pick what works best for a wide range of your stakeholders.

Next: Common color mistakes