“There’s a reason we don’t see the world in black and white.” — Celerie Kemble, designer
Imagine you’re at the grocery store, scouring the shelves for a new salsa. You don’t have any particular brand in mind, just something spicy that’ll take your new recipe to the next level. Before you are a dozen options, bottles outfitted in labels of every color. Which do you gravitate to first?
Color psychology tells us it probably won’t be the salsa with the blue label. You’ll likely grab the bottle outfitted in red or orange branding. Why? Because our minds subconsciously see those colors and think “hot” or “spicy.”
That same principle applies to nearly every product you buy. Good marketers know that colors are more than just colors. They’re ways of communicating feelings.
Another person who knew that well was Pablo Picasso. "Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions," he once said.
Here’s a quick exercise: Take a quick look around the room. What colors do you see? What words come to mind for each one?
Focus on one and take a few seconds to see how it makes you feel. Switch to another. Do you feel differently? Are the words you thought of different? If so, it’s because different colors often draw out different feelings within us.
Sometimes those feelings are almost biological and without clear reason, and sometimes it’s because we have a preconceived cultural notion of what kinds of emotions those colors evoke.
It’s not just artists and branding geniuses who can use color psychology to their advantage. You can too! Whether it be in the clothes you wear or the way you decorate your office, colors can have an effect on your day.
First some words experts often associate with specific colors:
Sophistication. Mystery. Power.
Honesty. Unity. Clarity.
Stability. Strength. Innovation.
Royalty. Wealth. Ambition.
Energy. Courage. Caution.
Nature. Balance. Progress.
Organization. Serenity. Intelligence.
Creativity. Cheer. Optimism.
Of course, every list like this is somewhat subjective. These colors may mean something different to you. “Even though most people possess those same associations, the intensity of those connections will depend on past experience,” says researcher Nick Kolenda.
Personal experience means a farmer could see the color green and think about his crops, Kolenda said, while a Wall Street investor could see the color green and think about wealth. The two have completely different lives, but they still see a color and associate it with a feeling. That’s the psychology piece.
Cultures can also impact the way a color is perceived. In Western culture, white is often seen as pure or a symbol of peace. But other Eastern cultures see it as a color of mourning.
How color psychology works in our brains
So, you know that when you see yellow you feel cheery or you see black and you feel powerful. But why?
One early 90s study found that colors can arouse a reaction in the brain. There’s an actual biological shift in a person when they’re exposed to “warm” colors, like red or yellow. Your heart may beat faster. You may feel a burst of energy. That’s probably why you see red and maybe feel emboldened, anxious, or romantic. That reaction can trigger other parts of the brain and thus a connection to a feeling is born.
Cooler colors can create a more balanced effect on the body.
Some colors, like purple, are shaped by how it’s been used throughout history. Purple, a color of prestige, was often worn by royalty. A mix of two primary colors, red and blue, made the dye a rarity, which made it more special throughout history.
How to use color psychology to improve your life
Outside of product design, there’s lot of ways color psychology is being used. In some instances, it’s saving lives.
You may have heard of chromotherapy, which uses colored lights as a holistic treatment. Red light is thought to add circulation to the body, while blue is thought to soothe the body.
In 2009, Tokyo installed blue lights throughout its railway system in hopes that it would prevent suicides, and it actually worked. Deaths at stops with the lights decreased by about 75%. Blue is a calming color and it appears to have had an effect.
Although this is an extreme example, it shows the power of color to affect our moods and behaviors. What areas of your life could you improve simply by being more intentional about the colors that surround you
If you’re looking to add more serenity to your life, try surrounding yourself with calming colors like the blues and greens of the Pacific Series in the 2021 Ink+Volt Planner. If you need a burst of energy at the office, a bright red washi tape accent in your planner could make a bigger impact on your motivation that you might expect.
Researchers suggest workplaces go green, a color that often signifies growth and wealth, if they want their employees to be more productive. Could a plant with big green leaves make you feel more rooted in your work, or more hopeful about growth?
This one may surprise you: if you’re looking to calm down, you might think you should go for a soft blue or grey. But you should actually opt for pink! One study found that prisoners placed in pink cells relaxed and became less aggravated. Because of that, about 20 percent of Swiss prisons have a pink cell. Maybe there’s a room in your house that would benefit from a coat of cheerful pink paint?
Being aware of your own subconscious reactions to color can be helpful in everyday life, even if your feelings aren’t the same feelings as most experts believe are mainstream.
When you’re picking out an outfit before a job interview, don’t just think about how the garment fits. Think about what the color will say -- humans are visual creatures and we make imperceptible snap judgments the moment we meet someone that strongly influence what we think about them. What feeling will this outfit instantly evoke, just through color alone?
Choosing the paint in your bedroom — experts say avoid red — can make for a more restful night’s sleep. A yellow planner can prompt optimistic thoughts. Showing up to a meeting in a black dress can convey you mean business.
Asking questions like, “What’s my gut reaction to this color?” and “Is that feeling helpful or does it serve a purpose?” can help you get the most out of color psychology.
If you find that certain colors do help or serve a purpose, chances are you can incorporate them into your day and use them to your advantage.