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Should colour psychology dictate brand design?

Colours can evoke certain feelings and emotions in people, and understanding how to use these feelings to your advantage can help create a compelling brand. However, although colour psychology can play a vital part in enhancing and authenticating a brand, it is usually only part of the picture.

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A comparison of established brands

Let’s take red and yellow– some say red signifies passion and excitement, sometimes danger; yellow is a sunny, happy colour, occasionally representing madness. These colours are used memorably by different household name brands as their primary brand colours. 


⇧ABOVE: McDonald’s, Ferrari and Mastercard all use variations of a red and yellow colour palette. Although their offering and customer base varies significantly, the sense of urgency, speed and excitement is a common theme for each brand which is symbolised by their choice of colour.

McDonald’s creates a sense of urgency in their ‘restaurants’ with prominent red and yellow, so customers are excited to order and eat fast. 

Ferrari uses red for its cars and yellow for its car badges, which also creates a sense of excitement. Both companies use these colours to promote a sense of speed, albeit for different commercial reasons- one company is catering for people looking for a quick, affordable meal; the other represents a pinnacle of vibrant, luxurious and hand-finished manufacturing. 

Finally, Mastercard symbolises fast, secure transactions for their global financial services by using red and yellow in interlocking circles, again promoting a sense of speed. Successful colour psychology, or the process of matching colours with a brand’s commercial aims, has created similar palettes to resonate with very different customer groups for very different reasons.

“Would brand designers pick the same combination of colours to promote fast food, luxury goods and security?”

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But would brand designers pick the same combination of colours to promote fast food, luxury goods and security if presented with those three briefs at once? Probably not.

Colours affect people differently, so hard rules to select individual colours won’t work. These companies don’t want to be seen as dangerous or mad, but their brand colours are sometimes associated with these perceptions, which also vary between cultures and individuals. For McDonald’s, Ferrari, and Mastercard, both the context and overall colour psychology are important.

Getting the right mix of creative improvisation, colour psychology, and understanding of what will most appeal to customers is paramount. You can see the result of this approach on this website designed for the Local Resilience Forums, where we used various colours for people’s changing states of mind when facing and recovering from emergencies. 

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