ALEXANDRIA, VA — Why do the magazines in the checkout aisle all set their titles in yellow type? Why have Apple computers gone from beige to white? And why do so many restaurants use red? The answer lies in color theory, the science of how colors interact with one another and with the eye. The art direction of many small businesses still comes down to the artistic sensibilities of the designer, but solid principles of how colors work together undergird those sensibilities. Here we’ll look at how businesses apply color theory in marketing, examine some of the science behind the art, and discover how you can better apply these principles to the visual side of your business.
Monochrome can be rather dull. Contrasting colors are guaranteed to catch the eye, and designers always keep this in mind to ensure effective design in labeling and print media. Of course, when it comes to maximum contrast, there’s no substitute for black and white, which is why you’ll often spot white type on a black background. Complementary colors of different values, such as midnight blue and bright orange, also have high levels of contrast. Even the same color with a wide enough value gap can be powerful, such as neon green against dark green. In print, the pure yellow of CMYK (cyan magenta yellow black) ink is not only eye catching but also reliantly readable.
Warm and Cool Colors
We can divide colors into warm, cool, and neutral tones. The neutrals, of course, are black, white, and the shades of gray in between. Warm colors such as red, orange, yellow, and brown are named as such because they elicit feelings of warmth in people—think not only of fire and earth but also of the rich golden browns of baked goods. Restaurants and food products alike rely heavily on warm colors in their design and marketing materials to evoke comfort and hunger. A glance at your city’s main drag of fast-food restaurants will also reveal a series of reds, oranges, and yellows in the signage and décor. Cool colors, on the other hand, are the blues, greens, and purples that suggest the sky, water, and plant life. These colors elicit calm and comfort.
One way that businesses apply color theory in marketing is by staking a claim to a color or color scheme to create brand loyalty. This is never more evident than in college and professional sports, where a team’s recognizable colors can become a nickname for the team, such as the Silver and Black of the NFL’s Raiders or the Crimson and Cream Machine of Indiana University. In the grocery store’s soda aisle, you know well that red means Coca-Cola; the recipe has infamously changed through the years, but they company will never relinquish its claim to red. Apple distinguished itself from its PC counterparts by abandoning standard-issue beige plastic for white and metallics, not only in hardware but also in its advertising.