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Picking a Color Scheme: Perception and Color in Pop-Culture


January 28, 2021

Do you remember Heinz’s release of green ketchup back in 2000? How about in ’92 when PepsiCo released Crystal Pepsi? You are probably smirking. These ‘innovations’ were flops. Why? Because we are conditioned to know that ketchup is red and Pepsi is brown (well, brownish, caramel, dark…it’s brown). The truth is, Pepsi could have been any color on the spectrum at its release, but over time, we as consumers came to associate Pepsi Cola’s personality with the color brown. When it comes to any marketable or noteworthy design, whether for a product or for a brand, color plays a key role in how we grow to recognize it. 

Heinz Colored Ketchup

Whether you’re planning the design of a website, t-shirt, or logo, a good place to start on your design is defining your brand’s personality. What do you want your brand to say? What do you want your audience to think or feel when they see your design? As demonstrated by Heinz and Pepsi, color is going to play a huge factor in the way your brand is received, so it’s important to know what you’re dealing with.

The Color Wheel

While there is a science to color (wavelengths, photoreceptor cells in your retina, optical prisms—oh my!), you don’t need to understand the science to make color choices. You do, however, want to choose wisely, as carelessness can cause some color trainwrecks (think of the slapdash color schemes of the 80s).

Standard Color Wheel

Luckily, you can balance science and freewheel with minimal knowledge of the color wheel. The color wheel is rather basic–you probably remember learning it in your elementary school’s art class. 

First, you have primary colors yellow, red, and blue, which blend to make secondary colors orange, violet, and green. Combine a secondary with its closest primary, and you have a tertiary color. Then, you have complementary colors, which are diagonal from each other on the wheel. Note–green is complementary to red—someone please call the ketchup people!

Things get a little more sophisticated when you want a color that’s not on the wheel, but this is pretty easy to grasp as well. Adding in a neutral color can change everything. Add white for tint, black for shade, and gray for tone. For example, pink is a lighter tint of red. To make pink, you simply add white to the base color red.

If this all seems like common knowledge to you, kudos! You’re already on track to speaking the language of our design team! If this seems nitty-gritty, rest assured–it gets better! Knowing the color spectrum basics will help you properly choose colors that will combine well to reflect your brand personality. 

Color Myths and Pop-Psychology

Color Psychology

Pinpointing emotional responses from one color to the next is about as accurate as a horoscope (unless that’s your thing, in which case…bear with us). Gauging response from color is fickle because there are too many outside influences: culture, past experience, preference, mood, and current pop-culture.

Don’t believe us? Here’s an example. Remember the mismatched 60s decor of your grandparent’s home? Believe it or not, this was once a popular trend, and it didn’t matter that the color combinations were completely random. At the time, mismatched was in.

1970s Room Decor

This can teach us that when choosing colors for your brand, you don’t want to focus on what’s ‘in’ or what’s ‘trendy’–that will always change. If your brand provides a continual level of service and reliability to a customer, odds are, unlike Grandma’s living room and pop trends, the color of your brand will transcend the fads of the time.

Highlight Your Product’s Personality

When you start thinking about colors, ask yourself how people perceive your brand. Better yet, how do you want people to perceive your brand? What color matches that perception? Let’s take a look at some brands who did it right when choosing their logo’s colors:

History of the Apple Logo

The classic example among brand coloring tips is Apple’s evolution toward a clean, neutral-colored design. The old colorful logo conveyed excitement and endless opportunity, which was appropriate for the public’s introductory period to home computers and the Internet. As technology culture changed and Apple’s products evolved, however, so did Apple’s logo. The transformed symbol uses neutral colors to convey a product that is clean, no-frills, and easy-peasy to operate. 

Dodge Ram Logo

Would Dodge Ram appeal to their target audience’s personality if their branding was magenta and white? Not likely: “Grab life by the horns,” and “Guts. Glory. Ram,” are slogans, but they are also elements of the brand’s persona, and that persona is not a fan of magenta. Generally, Dodge’s logo, the ram’s head, is silver and chrome on black–clean, stark, and to the point, as if it were machine-stamped into steel. It speaks to the rugged personality of Dodge Ram and its audience.

VS Pink Logo

On the opposite spectrum of personalities, Victoria’s Secret introduced their line Pink in order to target a young female market. Naturally, as the name insinuated, the brand used pink as its chief color. Is pink the go-to color for, as their website says, “comfy, effortlessly cool wear and accessories”? Not necessarily. Their site often uses pink an accent or font on a neutral, black background, but even its subtle presence hints at youth and vitality (Victoria’s Secret’s target audience)—think exuberance, passion, and flushed cheeks. It reaches beyond the realm of color and into personality. 

Remember Tommy Tutone

867-5309? No, just an admittedly poor segue way into the dual lives of color. How can one color sing in two-tones? Simple–because there are negative and positive associations with each color. 

Green with envy or nausea? Then why are environmental efforts suggesting I “go green”? As we said before, choosing your colors based on the popular psychology of the color isn’t always the most trustworthy way. Each color conveys multi-dimensional messages. Eco-friendly brands will usually adopt a green label. John Deere’s agricultural brand uses green on yellow. Think Animal Planet and Whole Foods—green and more green, but nonetheless very different brands.

John Deere Logo

So, if nature is your game, then green seems to help establish that personality, but more importantly, it is a color that audiences expect for such a product. In 2000, BP adopted their sunflower/sunburst logo to showcase their eco-friendly approach to varied fuel sources.

BP Logo

Let’s jump across the spectrum here. Seeing red? Red is in the realm of anger, danger, and seduction. It is arresting—stop signs, red lights, the red dress of the femme fatale. Why, then, can brands like Coca-Cola and Target use red with such success? That’s because the other side of red is excitement, boldness, and cheerfulness.

Coca Cola

The bottom line is to figure out the personality you want to convey, and then look at what works in culture, nature, and classic brands (keep in mind green ketchup and crystal Pepsi). Don’t be afraid to run a test or two. Put some buttons on your webpage with different colors and take note of which buttons your page’s visitors clicked. Or, get your t-shirts printed with two test logos and leave them out as freebies—see which demo takes which design. Once you get color down, you’ll be smooth sailing into constructing your design.

60-30-10: Finding Balance in Your Design

Color Balance

Once you get an idea of what color scheme will best convey your brand, think about the 60-30-10 rule. This rule offers the best and most time-tested advice: 60% background, 30% base, and 10% accent. The living room design shown above offers us a visual example. In the midst of the beige background and the white base, the yellow-green accents in the wall add just enough color to make the otherwise neutral room look hip. Think about that green wall when designing your logo, website, or t-shirt design. What do you want your customer to look at, click on, or remember? Keep accents in mind for this purpose.

It may take trial-and-error and patience, but once you bring your knowledge of colors and color combinations together, you’ll have a design that pops in no time.


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