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Does blue make you look more trustworthy?

13 Sep 2020 — Visual Communications, News, Creative Power
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From Hermès orange to Tiffany's blue, the history of brands and colours has always been closely linked. Colours have meaning, they influence our choices, the way we perceive a brand or a product, and much has been written on the subject. However, the meaning of colours is not an exact science, and too many shortcuts have been taken in our knowledge of it, too many attempts at generalisation when a little nuance was needed. Let's try to untangle the true from the false.

From Hermès orange to Tiffany's blue, the history of brands and colours has always been closely linked. Colours have meaning, they influence our choices, the way we perceive a brand or a product, and much has been written on the subject. However, the meaning of colours is not an exact science, and too many shortcuts have been taken in our knowledge of it, too many attempts at generalisation when a little nuance was needed. Let's try to untangle the true from the false.


A short theory of colour

To talk about colour, we must first make a quick reminder of the basics of colour theory.

 

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It all starts with red, yellow and blue, the three primary colours. Mixing two of these colours half and half results in the secondary colours: purple, green, and orange. Tertiary colours are created by adding more of one primary colour than the other. This results in colours closer to one primary colour, and names such as blue-green or red-orange.

By adding white to a hue, we create tints, or what we also call pastel colours. If we add different amounts of black, we get shades, with dull, darker colours. Finally, to obtain tones, we add grey and reduce the saturation of the colour.

When choosing a colour, we must think about how it will be used. Combining colours means working with a dynamic balance defined by the harmony they create. It is important to remember that the human brain rejects both over-and under-stimulating experiences, so harmony would be the central point between extreme unity and extreme complexity.

To achieve this, some basic theories such as colour analogy (using colours sitting next to each other on the wheel), or complementary colours (using opposite colours on the wheel) are widely used. Tones, shades and hues also come into play when we want to find the perfect combination.

Royal blue, light blue and navy blue are all different shades of blue, but they will have very different effects. Similarly, if we choose a colour for an effect, the outcome can be enhanced or softened by the palette around it.

But the main question remains: how do we choose that colour? We have all seen tables and lists showing the different meanings of colours, where orange can mean both optimism and pessimism, and red symbolises both love and aggression. Let's try to look more deeply into the influence of colours to clarify things.

How colours affect our bodies

Research has shown that warm hues, and red in particular, increase adrenaline levels in the human body1. This increase has several side effects that may be of interest in finding the right colour.

 

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  • Perception of time: “stress or anxiety may accelerate a person’s “internal clock”, which results in a perception of time passing slowly.” (Valdez & Mehrabian, 1994)2. On websites, research has shown that a blue loading bar will be perceived as taking less time than a red bar, especially if it is a tint of blue (light blue). Similarly, a person will be more likely to spend time on a flyer dominated by cold colours.

 

  • Impulse: Increased adrenaline levels inhibit cortical functioning and rational thinking and increase impulsivity. When they call for immediate action, warm colours can trigger a stronger reaction. Conversely, if you want your audience to maintain a high level of concentration or critical thinking, cool colours may be more appropriate.

 

  • Aggressivity: Adrenaline spikes also trigger aggressive tendencies that can influence viewer behaviour. In one study3, researchers studied ebay auction backgrounds and found that red backgrounds generated more revenue. It was hypothesised that by being more aggressive, auction participants might be more willing to outbid the competition (not to mention the push factor just mentioned). On the other hand, if your activity is based on negotiation, you may prefer to use a cool colour to diminish the aggressive tendencies of your counterpart.

 

These elements can help us navigate when choosing a colour, but colour psychology is not an exact science, and to these physiological effects of colour we need to add a psychological layer.

How colours affect our minds

Take the colour blue. In everyday life, it can remind us of the sky, or the sea, and bring a sense of security and naturalness. However, introduce this colour into the food industry, and its meaning changes radically. Blue is the only colour that is almost never found in edible products in nature, and it tends to repel consumers, so it will rarely be used.

The meaning of colours depends largely on the context, culture and experience of the viewer. To understand why, it is important to understand how the brain creates associative networks.

Think of the cognitive part of the brain as a huge network of knowledge made up of nodes that are interconnected. Emotions (e.g., pleasure), sensory experiences (e.g., sweetness) and semantic meanings (e.g., the word "cherry") are these nodes. Each time we experience something that includes these elements, connections will be created or strengthened. 

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When you eat a cherry, for example, the sensory experience of sweetness will be linked to the word "cherry", but also to the colour red. If you eat a strawberry, the same thing happens, and the link between sweetness and red, which already existed, will be strengthened. The interesting thing is that when a node activates, it also activates the nodes connected to it. If you see a red drink, your brain will activate the sweetness node. So it's not surprising that research shows that people who drink an unflavoured red liquid tend to describe it as sweet4. An attempt at erasing that Edouard Dupont tries to apply in his Parisian workshop. When he talks about his work, he talks about flow and meditation, about this state of concentration which allows him to find the right gesture. A right gesture that will leave a memorable trace on paper.

The varying meaning of colours

The associative network theory is an explanation to why the meaning of colours can never be an exact science. The same colour can evoke pleasant and unpleasant feelings to the same extent depending on personal experience. However, as we live in structured societies with common cultures and references, some colours become imbued with meaning over time. Western culture associates attraction with the colour red, for example.

Studies5 have shown that people are considered more attractive when they wear red, which can be explained by the theory of associative networks. As red is culturally linked to notions of romance and love, the "red" knot becomes linked to the "romance" knot. This link is reinforced by any reference to it, red roses, red lipstick, red Valentine's Day cards... When we see a potential partner wearing red, the "red" knot is activated, which activates the "romance" knot, slightly altering our perception of the person in front of us.

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This explains why colours have different meanings in different cultures. Mourning will be associated with black in Western countries, white in China and yellow in Egypt.
Similarly, while purple is a colour of nobility in Western countries, its Chinese counterpart will be yellow. The theory of associative networks is important because it shows us that in order to choose a colour for a targeted public, it is necessary to study this public and its perception of a colour before making a decision.

Choosing the right colour is then partly a matter of knowledge and partly a matter of intuition. When trying to choose colours for printed communication, keep that in mind. It is important also to remember that most research has been done on pure colours or tints, it rarely takes into account the infinite nuances, shades and tones that play a huge role in how we perceive colours, and constitute such a limitless playground.

 

1 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00994188

2 https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1995-08699-001

3 https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/49137/666466.pdf?sequence=1

4 https://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13411-015-0031-3

5 http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.335.828&rep=rep1&type=pdf