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Colour Theory 2: Colour in branding and design

Following on from Part 1: Basic concepts, let’s look at how colours can give your designs a different message.

In Colour Theory 1: Basic concepts, we briefly looked at the history of colour theory, colour models and model differences.

In this article, we’ll focus on colour messaging from a design perspective, answering questions like “Which colour should I pick?” and “How can I change the mood of my designs?”

Colour messaging

In the marketing of products and services, colour is all-important in conveying a non-verbal message to potential customers as a result of psychological symbolism (historical, cultural, spiritual, emotive) or natural association (environmental).

If your designs are intended for a specific geographical region, it’s important to be conscious of what that colour means to those target territories. For example, a branding campaign focusing on China that used red in its designs would suggest happiness and prosperity, while the same colour in South Africa would suggest mourning. As a result, campaigns that are truly global could benefit from more neutral, even natural colours, to avoid bad messaging. After all, colour associations with the natural world are universal.

It’s not just product/service marketing that carefully considers colour choice. Political parties, academic organisations, societies and charities consider this too.

Here are some colour messaging examples.

Warm colours

Reds, yellows and oranges are warm colours, suggesting energy and positivity. Unlike red and yellow, which are primary colours, orange is a secondary colour (a mix of red and yellow) which brings together mixed messages from its parent primary colours.

Redimportance, attention, love, passion, warnings, danger, fire, violence, war, anger, rebellion
Sends out a strong message that provokes an emotive response; the message may differ significantly by culture or political influence.

Orangecreativity, youth, vitality, enthusiasm, autumn, fall
Considered less overpowering than red, and friendlier too. You may find it used as text accent highlights on more neutral designs.

Yellowhappiness, sunshine, spring, cowardice, illness, caution, warnings
Associated with happy summers and warmth, but with a darker side (just like red).

Logo examples:

Major brands (e.g., Coca-Cola) use red to demand attention, while others use yellow to signal happiness (McDonalds).

Cool colours

The opposite of warm colours terminology-wise, cool colours such as green, blue and purple are more calming. Blue is the only primary colour, with green and purple being derived from blue and the other primary colours.

Greenbanking, money, growth, safety, nature, organic, earth, plant life, inexperience, envy
As a natural colour, it is associated primarily with the environment. Could banking have adopted green to symbolise growth?

Purplewealth, luxury
Historically the colour of royalty, you’ll find it on expensive regal fabrics (jewels, crowns, etc.). Using this sparingly for very special events or promotions would make sense.

Blueresponsibility, trust, security, cold, water, space, sadness, melancholy
Lighter blues suggest calmness and water qualities, while dark blues suggest professionalism and trustworthiness.

Logo examples:

Tropicana uses green to signify naturalness, while NASA uses a deep blue as a direct colour association with space. Both, along with Hallmark, use supporting leaf, crown and star imagery in their logos to reinforce this.

Neutral colours

Black and white, plus greyscale colours, can be used for design backgrounds and unification of contrasting colours in palettes. In branding, they can be used as safe neutral colours that can be presented either standalone or in front of stronger colours.

Blackpower, modernness, sophistication, elegance, authoritarian, death, evil
Black always seems to stay in fashion due to its neutrality, hence its wide use in modern electronic equipment (televisions, computers, cell phones) and the automotive industry. For the same reason, in branding, black oozes power and simplicity.

Greyformality, professionalism, moodiness, coolness
Black and white designs are very contrasting, but greys can be used in place of black or white for understated ‘softened’ designs.

Whitepurity, peace, cleanliness, coolness
Associated with minimalist ‘clean’ designs, white offers a wide scope from which to add stronger ‘messaging’ colours. As an example of cultural differences in colour messaging, in western culture, white is the popular choice of colour for wedding dresses, while Chinese brides traditionally wear red wedding dresses.

Brown/Beige/Tan/Cream/Ivorynatural, earth, wood, stone, calmness, purity
The colours listed progress from warm to cool.

Logo examples:

The WWF makes a natural black/white association with a protected animal, the iconic Panda, while the BBC goes for an understated logo that suggests professionalism.


With some consideration to colour messaging you’ll be able to choose colour that fits with your target audience.

In the next (and final) article in this series, Colour Theory 3: Applying colour in Affinity apps, we look at how you apply colour and create palettes in Affinity apps.