top of page

Speaking the Language of Color

Color is an essential element of communication. It can be used to shape perceptions, affect reactions, influence choices and provoke responses. In marketing materials, it adds a dynamic to the structure – the general form and direction – of the words and image by highlighting and marking important content. The more you understand the language of color, the more effective you will be in speaking to your customers and prospects with your printed materials and web site.

How we see color Science describes how humans perceive color. Specifically, color is light. In his 1704 book Opticks, the English natural philosopher Sir Isaac Newton described the fundamental nature of light as color. The book was based on his observation that when pure white light passes through a prism, it separates into a spectrum of seven hues (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) known as the visual spectrum.

In Opticks Newton clearly states that color is not a property of objects observed or of light. Rather, it is a product of the mind. His proof was that that he could create a color that was not part of the light spectrum (magenta) by overlapping two hues that were a part of it (red and violet). And when he connected the red and violet ends of the spectrum, he created the first color wheel, thus showing the relationship between the colors in the visible spectrum.

Types of color wheels A color wheel is arranged according to the chromatic relationship of the colors. The relationships are primary, secondary, tertiary, complementary and analogous.

  • Primary: three hues (i.e., colors) that form the basis of the color wheel. These colors cannot be created by mixing others.

  • Secondary: three hues created by mixing two primary colors. Secondary hues appear between primary hues on the wheel.

  • Tertiary: six hues created by mixing a primary and secondary hue that appear between them on the wheel.

  • Complementary: hues located opposite each other on the wheel.

  • Analogous: hues located close together on the wheel.

A color wheel based on the primary colors of red, green and blue (RGB) and secondary colors of cyan (blue), magenta and yellow describes an additive color system. Additive color is created with light. It begins with black (the absence of light) and creates color by mixing red, green and blue light. When combined in equal amounts, red, green and blue light appears white. Televisions, computer monitors and smart phone screens are examples of the RGB color wheel.

A color wheel based on the primary colors of cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY) and secondary colors of red, green and blue describes a subtractive color system. Unlike the additive system that combines (adds) to produce white light, the subtractive system absorbs (subtracts) different hues of white light. An object (like paper) reflects unabsorbed light, creating color. When combined in equal amounts, all the colors of the subtractive color wheel produce black (though it looks more like muddy brown). Color printing and color photography examples of the CMY color system. (The K in CMYK printing is an abbreviation for black ink used in place of the muddy brown resulting from equal parts of CMY.)

An artist’s color wheel, based on the primary colors of red, blue and yellow and secondary colors of green, orange and violet, is also a subtractive color method.

Lack of overlap between color systems The additive and subtractive color systems are not perfectly overlapping. You might be aware of this if you’ve ever noticed a difference between the color displayed on your computer monitor and the same color used on a printed piece.

The reason for the difference is based in science. The human eye can see billions of colors in the visible spectrum; RGB light can reproduce 16 million colors; and CMYK printing can reproduce five to six thousand colors. When a color is in both the RGB and CMYK color gamuts, it may look identical. But if an RGB color is outside the CMYK gamut, it may be quite different. Please keep this in mind if you are creating the artwork for the printed piece yourself. (When we are designing, we automatically work in the CMYK color space.)

How color affects purchasing decisions During the decision-making process of a purchase, color is a very influential factor on the subconscious mind. In 2010, Kissmetrics, a customer analytics platform for small and mid-sized companies, published a series of infographics on how colors affect purchases. Among the findings:

  • 93% of customers place visual appearance and color among all other factors when shopping.

  • 85% cite color as a primary reason for buying a particular product.

  • Color increases brand recognition by 80%.

  • Some colors are associated with types of customers. Yellow is used to attract window shoppers; red is often seen in clearance sales; blue is used by banks and businesses to create a sense of trust and security; green is used in stores for relaxation. Red, orange, black and royal blue attract impulse shoppers and are used for fast food and outlet malls. Navy blue and teal appeal to shoppers on a budget and are used by banks and large department stores. Pink, sky blue and rose attract traditional buyers and are used by clothing stores.

The Logo Company, a graphic design firm in New York, published a color emotion guide with examples of corporate logos for each color.

  • Yellow: optimism, clarity warmth. A rich color that invokes gold and treasure. Used by McDonald’s, Hertz, Best Buy, Shell Oil, Sun Chips, Sprint, Subway.

  • Orange: friendly, cheerful, confident, creative, youthful, enthusiastic. Used by Nickelodeon, Fanta, Crush, Hooters, Gulf Oil, Firefox, Home Depot, Harley-Davidson.

  • Red: excitement, youthful, bold, warm, exciting, sexy, urgent. Used by Nintendo, K Mart, Coca Cola, Target, Lego, Kellogg’s, Netflix.

  • Purple: creative, imaginative, wise. Suggests images of grandeur, opulence, mysticism. Used by Syfy Channel, Hallmark, Yahoo!, Taco Bell, Cadbury.

  • Blue: trust, dependability, strength. Suggests calm and tranquility. Used by Dell, IBM, Intel, AT&T, Pfizer, WalMart, Volkswagen, Oreo, HP, Twitter, IBM, JP Morgan.

  • Green: peaceful, serene, growth, health. Whole Foods, John Deere, Girl Scouts, Animal Planet, H&R Block, Starbucks.

  • Gray/silver: Balance, neutral, calm. Mercedes Benz, Honda, Apple,

Blue and red are the most popular logo colors for the world’s top brands – a fact that has remained true over the years. In 2003, Wired magazine reported that two-thirds of corporate America logo were either blue or red (with blue logos slightly ahead of red). Seven years later (2010) this was still true and again in 2013.

Understand the language of color Color is a language that appeals to emotion. Learning to use it can enhance the effectiveness of your efforts to persuade customers and prospects to buy from you. To learn more about how to put color to work in your marketing materials, contact an MPC Sales Representative for an appointment. We will be happy to assist.


bottom of page