• Insight

Applying 'Colour theory' to brand engagement

Why is colour so important, and how can it help shape your brand or campaigns. Looking at colour theory and how it can support brand engagement.

Choosing a brand colour palette can be overwhelming, it's something that is a big visual commitment, needing to support your brands identity - so it needs to be right. A basic understanding of colour theory, can steer you in the right direction, here we have pulled together some basics.

What is colour theory?

Colour theory creates a logical structure for colour, based upon the core of what colour theory is derived from, which is the colour wheel; how colour is created, formed, mixed, and how the relationship of colours hues interact with each other. The theory of colour is a comprehension of what colour can mean, and make an audience feel and behave.

How can colour theory steer brand engagement?

Colour theory is vital within designing for your brand, as it can lead your audience to either disengage with your product, brand or message in an instant, or engage, and lead to connecting with your audience, or customers who purchase.

A colour preference is subjective, but there is logic to understanding colour and how it interacts with your design, within colour pairings, as well as most integrally how it reflects your brand. Everyone has a similar instinctual feeling about a colour, from a general point of view, so harnessing that can steer your audience, whilst still staying true to your brand identity.

Colour can define different tone and meaning behind your message, and brand, steering what you want to communicate to your audience. Colour can be a journey within a campaign, or within an email or website, and enticing your audience to engage, click though, read, scroll, delve deeper into your brand, and buy.

The Colour Wheel

At the heart of colour theory is the colour wheel, which is essential to understand, as the colour wheel visually explains the relationship of colours. The colour wheel is based upon the primary colours: red, yellow and blue; from these colours secondary, tertiary, and all colours can be formed. A colour wheel organises these colours into a logical rainbow structure and order, it was primarily created for artists and the physical art of colour mixing for painting; however it is relevant for all create forms, including digitally as the colour fundamentals follow the same core principles.

Little bit of history

The colour wheel concept was discovered by Sir Issac Newton in 1666 as he was conducting experiments with light, and as the white light passed through a prism, it created coloured rainbows. From these light reflections and his analytical work, he discovered that the three primary colours are red, blue and yellow; the theories from this work influenced the colour wheel developed later by Johann Wolfgang Goethe in the1800s, who looked less analytically and more at the psychology of colour, and was used by great painters of his time. Both sets of works developed the colour wheel we use today.

Primary colours

  • Red

  • Yellow

  • Blue

These colours are traditional within colour theory as primary colours, and used in paint and pigments. The primary colours cannot be mixed by any other colour to form them, and all other colours are derived from these three primary colours.

Secondary colours

  • Green = (mixing primary yellow and primary blue)

  • Orange = (mixing primary red and primary yellow)

  • Purple = (mixing primary red and primary blue)

These colours are created from mixing the primary colours.

Tertiary colours

  • Blue-green = (mixing primary blue and secondary green)

  • Yellow-green = (mixing primary yellow and secondary green)

  • Yellow-orange = (mixing primary yellow and secondary orange)

  • Red-orange = (mixing primary red and secondary orange)

  • Red-purple = (mixing primary red an secondary purple)

  • Blue-purple = (mixing primary blue and secondary purple)

These colours are created from mixing primary colours with the secondary colours.

Colour hues

A colour hue is any colour from the colour wheel, referring to the dominant colour. White, black and grey are not counted as colours so aren't hues, they are considered tints and shades.

Colour tints

Colour hues are lighter hues of the colours from the colour wheel, bringing the hue levels down and only adding white to a primary, secondary or tertiary colour, creating a tint of that colour which can then be as weak in colour, or as strong in colour as desired. An entire palette can be created using tints, which can feel youthful, these colours can also be referred to as a pastel.

For example; when thinking where pastel palette works best is with young adolescence, or young adult, as using tints creates a very youthful colour palette. It is predominantly used within beauty branding, as it can feel fresh and youthfulness is desirable within the beauty industry.

Colour shades

While tints look at the colour as a lighter hue variation, only using white, colour shades is the opposite. A colour shade is a colour from the colour wheel mixed with black (and black only, no white), which increases the colours depth and darkness.

For example; when you look at creating sale messaging, you immediately know to use red, red is mostly used for sales within advertising. However the hue and shade of red can differentiate your brand, both heroing your brand identity, as well as you are still standing out amongst competitors. In the clean design example below, you can see a variation of red hues from our primary red, and by adding colour shade you can see the tonal feeling and depth changing. It transforms from an accessible sale to an exclusive sale, whilst each still feels bold. I always consider when looking at sale creative what the best hue, tint, shade or tone of red that should be used.

Colour tone

Colour tone is any hue of colour from the colour wheel adding only grey (a white and black mix). A neutral tone which will dull the intensity of the colour, although it dulls it, it is a very sophisticated way of adding depth and richness to a colour and is more subtle than adding a black colour shade.

For example; When you look at the primary colours these feel more associated with children's products and branding, so feel young, bold, attention grabbing and accessible. However adding tone will make it become feel more sophisticated and engaging, standing out in a different way more applicable to a different type of audience. Looking at the simple logo designs below, you can immediately see they feel like two different brand identities due to the tonal colour variation.

Warm and cool colours

When you look at the general tone of colours they can feel warm or cooler, blue projects a cool feeling while yellow gives a feeling of warmth. Warm colours, like red, yellow and orange, are seen to be active, while cool colours like green and blue are viewed as calm and more passive. When applying a warm or cool colour to an action, a warm colour may result in better engagement in comparison to a cool colour.

Warmer colours

  • Red

  • Yellow

  • Orange

Cooler colours

  • Blue

  • Green

  • Purple

For example; looking at warmth and coolness within colours can help shape your design. When you think about designing seasonally, Summer / Autumnal colours feel warmer, and Winter / Spring colours are cooler, so are the palettes that are most applicable when designing.

Creating a harmonious colour palette

Looking at how colours interact with each other and understanding colour theory at the core will help you pick your brand colour palette. Bright colours can make a design feel vibrant and warm, a more tinted palette can feel fresher, cleaner and cooler, while colours with more black added to them are innately heavier and add weight to the design.

When picking your colour palette you need to find a palette that has colour harmony. A good understanding of colour harmony is delving into the colour theory behind complimentary, analogous, triadic, monochromic, and tetradic colour sets.

A good starting point used by graphic designers and interior designers is to create the basis of your palette by choosing three colours for your brand palette:

  • Dominant colour; approximately used for 60% of a design

  • Secondary colour; approximately used for 30% of the design

  • Accent colour; approximately used for 10% of the design

Colour pairing

The key is understanding colours and creating a palette, is to not use just one colour to represent you brand but to create a brand palette. If you have two colours that work well together such as navy and turquoise having an additional vibrant contrasting accent colour can identify and strengthen your branding, creating constancy whilst still having a variation.

Complementary colours

These are colours that are directly opposite to each other on the colour wheel, and will create a high contrast, impact combination, whilst still working well together both from the core hue and tonally. When used next to each other within a design, these colours will appear more intense and vibrant.

Analogous colours

Analogous are colours that are tertiary colour groups sitting next to each other on the colour wheel. These analogous colour schemes are often found in nature, they are harmonious and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, creating serene designs.

Triadic colours

Uses the power of three colours which are situated at 120 degrees from each other (as determined by an equilateral triangle), they sit three colours apart on the colour wheel from each other. Triadic colour harmonies are considered to be one of the best forms of a colour scheme as they contrast well together and are vibrant, even when using colour tinted versions of the colours.


This is based on a dominant colour on the colour wheel, and creating three shades, or tints of that dominant base colour. This provides a subtle and conservative combination which is clean but still very versatile within design and branding.

However one set of monochromatic colours lacks a contrasting colour, and if standing on its on as a brand palette can get lost, and would work better if using another colour paring concept along side the monochromatic principles.


These are the four colours that are evenly spaced on the colour wheel. They can be very overwhelming, and generally work better when one colour is chosen as the dominant colour and the others are used as supporting and accent colours.

For example; based on the above colour wheel colour theory, here is how these colour palette combinations look.

The psychology of colour

All colour evoke an emotion, the psychology of colours that are used within our cultural landscape will unconsciously creating associated feelings to their audience. When looking a creating a brand palette, it is important to be aware of the general psychology of colours, which we have touched upon when talking about warm and cooler hues.

All colours have positive and negative meanings, but how they are used within your brand makes a big difference. Its important to consider how you use colour within all your marketing material as well as branding, such as; emails, social media, website design and printed material. Colour psychology focuses on how colours impact consumers’ impressions of a brand, and whether or not they feel persuaded as consumers to consider specific brands or make a purchase with a brand.

Positive colour associations

  • Red; is the colour of passion, love, urgency, impulsiveness, excitement, and it's youthful, it works well for seasonal sales to drive people to purchase.

  • Orange; is another high-energy colour, it's a friendly colour, ambitious, enthusiastic, playful, joyful. Its an impulsive colour so is a great choice for CTAs.

  • Yellow; is the colour of Summer and sunshine, an attention grabbing colour, it's a happy and cheerful hue, accessible, approachable, affordable, joyful, optimistic, and youthful.

  • Green; is incredibly versatile and easy to process colour. However culturally mostly associated with eco brands. Green connects well with nature, growth, luck, money, wealth, and security, as well as promoting the feeling of calm.

  • Blue; the most universally appealing colour, and most widely used as a branding colour. Creates the feelings for peace, wellbeing, calmness, stillness, stability, trustworthiness, loyalty and security. Blue is calming so can help and audience absorb information. A strong colour to use when creating online checkout pages, or contractual designs.

  • Purple; is the colour of royalty, it is a luxurious colour and good to be used within luxury branding, rich, and sophisticated, evokes wisdom, respect, and wealth.

  • Brown: not overly used within branding, can help people to view your brand as rugged or masculine. Rustic, authentic,

  • Pink; Right or wrong, pink is culturally tied to femininity, so if your brand is targeted towards women, pink should be a definite contender for your brand color. It’s also a great color for brands with a soft or luxurious identity.

Negative colour associations

  • Red; increases the heart rate, so works well to advertise danger and warnings, it's a chaotic and stressful colour, associate it with war, annoyance, negative finances.

  • Orange; suggests anxiety, aggressiveness, nervousness

  • Yellow; Insecurity, distraction, panic, its an affordable and accessible colour so doesn't lend t the high-end luxury market.

  • Green; suggests envy, apprehension, uncertainty. Can also feel connected to toys, and slime, and even be disgusting.

  • Blue; is so calm, it's can feel. sad, and relate to grief, remorse, dispassion, emptiness, and depression.

  • Purple; suggests boredom, loathing, disgust, old, dated, conservative, and hopelessness.

Although not technically qualified as colours...

  • Black; If you want to be viewed as modern or sophisticated, there’s nothing as classic and effective as black, it contrasts well. It can feel depressing, dark, vacant due to the depth of black, but does also feel sophisticated, sensual. and. elusive.

  • White; creates much needed negative space, cleanliness, elegance, modern and editorial feeling to a design, contrasting well with all colours. It can feel hopeful, light and airy.

Whilst colour meaning and the psychological impact colour can give better ideas on how to use colour within engagement strategy, colour is still subjective, and can also effect people dependant of personal preference, cultures, upbringings, and past associations with colours, and to a degree that can distort the effect that individual colours have on us.

How colour influences decision-making

The psychological impact of colours can affect perceptions and behaviours of a person, and how they can interact and engage with a design. The general meaning and feelings that colours can suggest may be the impression your audience feels when seeing said colour, however used in different contexts, and using that understanding of colours meanings can be formed into a good marketing strategy.

For example; when one vibrant colour can be used two ways within a design and evoke two different effects of engagement.

  • Minimal use; When using a bright, vibrant and aggravating colour in a design you can either use it sparingly, or heavily. Using it sparingly in key areas you want your audience to engage with, navigating their eye with that colour as a highlighter, urging them to engage, (great for CTAs).

  • Maximum use; Or through using that same colour make a completely different impression to your audience and create a different experience, by more dramatically filling the design space with that same colour. This can provoke a different effect on the senses, and make the audience pay attention to that focused area, which could be a campaign message you want them to remember; however it is more difficult to make the audience engage elsewhere on that design, as its a jarring impression.

So using a vibrant colour can generate better engagement, or steer a customer away dependant on approach, and impact on the senses, so considering the scale of how to use a bright and vibrant colour to your benefit is part of the art of using colour in decision making.

Perception of colour

Colour is dependent on the physiological characteristics, experience and the environment. We know that colour is radiation of different wavelengths characterised by different degrees of reflection, refraction, and absorption. The eye perceives colour, and then the brain starts to process it. The colour that we prefer and respond to can tell us a lot about ourselves, reflecting our concerns, fears, and aspirations.

Colour and mood

Colour plays an important part in our lives, it can change your reaction to things instantly, and under the influence of a particular colour, you are capable of experiencing a change in pressure, mood and appetite. We do not generally focus our attention on colour, as it's woven into surrounding, so the importance of understanding its effects comes to us when the colour is absent.

For example; when the weather shifts and becomes cloudy and overcast, or the days are shorter and darker, we may feel depressed, things can feel like they are going wrong and our environment feels unfriendly.

Stimulating and relaxing effects of colour

Warmer colours have the greatest wavelength and require a considerable amount of energy to be perceived, and can stimulate the brain, increase heart rate and breathing, create urgency and anxiety, asa result can make more impulsive decisions. Whilst the cooler cooler, have shorter wavelengths and are therefore easily absorbed, which is why these colours have a calm and relaxing effect, pace breathing and heart rate, feel more open and have better clarity with decision making.

When creating a colour palette it's worth considering the meanings of contrasting palettes.

For example; light blue helps absorb information, and is calming colour, it works well in combination with yellow, to increase concentration and activating the brain.

Applying colour theory to your brand

The landscape of brands is a competitive market place, and is bombarded with products and brands that are trying to get our attention at every turn, decreasing the chance that your product or brand will immediately stand out.

The way our natural senses function colour is the most influential, followed by shapes, then symbols, and finally words. Which is why when choosing your palette, starting with a colour that has a connection to your brand story and identity, build around it using the colour theory basics to create a sustainable brand colour palette.

Look at colour trends

Colour palettes trends go through phases, shifting from bold and bright to more muted hues, and although you don’t need to be 'on-trend', it is important to have an idea of what types of design style and trends there are to understand your competitors, (and to create something different).

Applying colour theory to brand engagement

Best practice for applying colour theory to brand engagement, is to set colour guidelines within your brand guidelines for how to use your palette.

Create a engagement colour strategy

Associating certain colours with CTAs, headlines, banners, information, certain campaigns, photography shoots; can help create a brand identity with colour and create a narrative and consistency with your audience and the journey of your campaigns or design. Setting hard and fast rules will help when creating marketing material and brand campaigns to ensure you are using your brand identity and the colour theory to engage.

This article was created by © Metamorphosis Creative. We are always on hand to give advice and support with your brand aspirations, please get in touch if you'd like support with a brief.