The connotations of colour

10th August 2018

Colour might be seen as a simple subject – well I remember the laughter of my university classmates as a term’s electives were announced, when I had elected to study colour, as if it were the sort of thing a child might choose – but it is a vastly more involved subject than one might think.

There are many technical considerations involved, with different colour models, colour spaces, gamuts, bit depths and more. We’ll cover some of the more salient points of those, but for now let’s look at what is often termed ‘the psychology of colour’ – that is to say, the reactions that people have to different colours – and how it might affect your branding.

The first consideration for most businesses when choosing a corporate colour scheme is probably “does it look nice?”. And that’s fine, if it doesn’t look appealing to your customer, it’s already failed. Beyond whether it looks nice, though, we need to be sure that a colour scheme comes with the right connotations for your business.

The website of Pantone – who we’ll come to shortly – suggests that consumers make the following broad associations of colours and qualities:

Dramatic and Sophisticated

Trustworthy & Secure

Bold & Passionate

Optimistic & Innovative

Vibrant & Energetic

Enchanting & Regal

Rejuvenating & Natural

Sleek & Timeless

Grounded & Robust

Festive & Fun

They proceed to give a range of examples for each colour, and while some may seem a little spurious (it seems safe to assume that the real reason Fanta’s logo is primarily orange is not because they want to be seen as Vibrant and Energetic, but because the product is an orange flavoured beverage and subsequently any other colour would be a little misleading) there does seem to be a correlation. Casting one’s mind to the branding of ESPC member firms (and of the ESPC itself), and how many use blue (Trustworthy & Secure) as their primary colour, as opposed to the number which uses red (Bold & Passionate) or orange (Vibrant & Energetic)?

While there’s nothing wrong with diverging from the accepted norms, clearly a majority of firms see trustworthiness and security to be qualities they wish to emphasise. But if you’re thinking of a change or a theme for a campaign, it may well be worth putting some consideration into what the colours will say to the customer.

Once you’ve settled on a colour, though, how do you convey that to a designer, and how do you make sure a printer prints the right shade? Most new computer monitors can display 24-bit colour, which equates to 16,777,216 different colours, so it’s not as simple as just saying “light blue”.

There are, as previously mentioned, various different colour models, with different purposes and intents. There are, though, just two we really need to consider right now: RGB and CMYK.

RGB (Red, Green and Blue) is the model your monitor, phone, television and any other emissive display will use. It combines combinations of those three colours in order to create a full range of colours. It is, however, not possible to use this in print, for reasons we won’t go into here (if you’re interested, feel free to do some research on subtractive colour theory). Colours specified in the RGB space will have a value for each of the three colours, on a scale of 0–255.

Colours used on websites also follow the RGB format but are represented hexadecimally: a string of six characters preceded by a hash, composed of a pair for red, green and blue e.g. #FFCC00. You can build all kinds of colours this way, but there is also a predetermined list of ‘web safe colours’ which were primarily used on older displays (not so much of an issue now, but handy to keep in mind when designing for older screens or even just consistency’s sake). Google actually has an inbuilt converter and colour picker, try typing “RGB to HEX” into the search bar to try it.

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) is the model that printed materials use, it’s also known as four-colour process, or just process colour. These colours are printed as a series of dots in order to make up the different colours. As with the RGB model, a specific colour is specified with a number for each colour in the process, only with CMYK, they are on a scale of 0–100.

There is an important addition to the standard CMYK model, however, and that is the use of spot colours. There are several colour matching systems, of which the Pantone Matching System (sometimes referred to as PMS) is the most widespread and well known. Many people often, erroneously, use a Pantone reference as a method for defining any colour. Its purpose is more specialized than that though.

The standard CMYK printing process uses a printing plate for each of the four constituent colours. There will always be some variance between printed materials, though, depending on things such as the type of paper used and the light that they’re viewed under. Pantone colours are not intended to be part of the four-colour process, instead, they use an additional plate for each Pantone colour used. The Pantone ink is itself specified to a standard so that it will not vary. In this way, material printed by different printers across the world will always have the same result when using a Pantone. For this reason, they are often used as so-called ‘corporate colours’ – the ESPC, for example, uses Pantone 648 in its logo.

Pantones are specified by a specific number, obtainable from a Pantone swatch book. These are suffixed with either a ‘c’ or a ‘u’, depending on whether the intended paper is coated or uncoated.

It is possible to specify Pantone colours when printing a normal four-colour process, but it won’t necessarily match the way it is intended, and how close it is will vary widely. It is this that many people don’t understand about the Pantone system.

There is a collection of Pantone shades intended for CMYK, but these are separate from the standard Pantone Matching System and won’t have the same universality across different printers.

While but a brief introduction, this should all go some way to illustrating that colour can be a subject with far more depth than initially apparent. If you’d like to chat about how colour can help your business, why not give us a call? We’d love to hear from you.

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