Pick the Perfect Palette

Colour selection can have a huge impact on a brand. Début reveals how trends and cultural associations can influence these choices.

Almost every element of our sensory environment can be assigned a colour. Whether consciously or on a subconscious level, we project colours onto the people we like and dislike and have colour associations with situations we'd rather forget or would like to revisit. It not only plays a big part in defining our self image, but our underlying moods, hopes, fears, likes and dislikes are often assigned colours of their own too.

Some colours we are strongly drawn to; others we consider feminine or masculine, lively or subdued. These associations are a complex mix of personal association and preferences. They also have deep cultural roots and are swayed by trends.

At present both colour psychology and colour symbolism are considered 'soft science'. Mainstream psychologists have reported that most evidence points to a lack of a single, universal reaction to any particular colour. However, as colour association often happens subconsciously, these subliminal responses can have a very real effect on the viewer's interpretation of what they're seeing.

Colour choice might be just one component to consider when creating an overall brand identity, but research has found that it has the most significant impact on the consumer. Studies by the Institute for Color Research have found that in the first 90 seconds of observing an item, the viewer has already made a subconscious judgement - up to 90 per cent of which is based on its colour. These are startling results for designers. When branding your company, a product or service, it would be impossible to take into account the myriad of personal colour associations your audience may have - but a basic awareness is still essential.

Colour symbolism is also dependent on anecdotal evidence and not scientific studies. The idea that 'pink cells calm prisoners' or that 'red cars get more tickets' have not been proven (nor have any studies been undertaken in an attempt to validate these claims).

Having said that, there are many implications that surface again and again regarding the impact of colour on the viewer, and subsequently can't be ignored. Blue stands out as the favourite colour of both male and female participants, from all age groups, in both the US and 21 other countries according to a study by Joe Hallock. This mirrors the results of an ongoing survey being taken by visitors to www.psychology.about.com. Here, the colour blue was considered the favourite of 77,063 visitors, followed by green, purple, black, red, pink, yellow, orange, white and brown.

Research has also shown that when consumers scan the shelves in supermarkets, they do so by looking for brand colours, not brand names. This reinforces the findings by the Institute for Color Research in regard to the immediate impact of colour on the consumer. Competitor brands often use this behaviour to their advantage, by adopting competitor brand colours. It seems to be fair game within the retail market, and something that's done to great effect by most of the major food chains. Many store-branded goods mimic the packaging and labelling of national brands, drawing the consumer's attention to them and manipulating their association, thus placing the products on a more equal footing with the larger, established brands.

Research by the University of Loyola also found that colour increases brand awareness by 80 per cent. As a design agency, we call upon much of this research when creating or working with brands. It's important that clients aren't automatically dismissive of a particular colour due to personal preference before preliminary research has been undertaken, as this personal choice may rule out the most appropriate colour.

In many cases colour choices can be influenced by current market trends and can be selected or rejected due to the association with other established brands. This disassociation with competitor brand colours is quite clearly displayed within the mobile phone market, where the four major UK phone companies are easily distinguishable by their colour branding: O2 is blue; T-Mobile is pink; Orange, orange; and Vodafone, red. Each has their own distinct and separate brand colours, although on a basic level each company offers essentially the same products and services.

We put this research into practice with a recent client, The Smile Works dental practice, it required a brand that would differentiate the service within the market and build added value within the brand, to support the additional costs associated with private treatment.

It was important to choose a friendly, warm and inviting colour palette that would put the consumer at ease and quash the negative associations with visiting the dentist. Many colours were automatically dismissed using the standard psychological associations - blue in particular, which for many may have been the immediate choice, was seen as austere and clinical in relation to dentistry.

After consultation and development, a palette of autumnal colours was decided upon. This was then applied to a logo that needed to appeal to an older audience, who are Smile Works' primary market.

When rebranding or working with existing identities, colour associations still work in relation to the design process. We were commissioned to re-design an existing logo for a Creative Industries incubation programme, SP/ARK. The original logo was blue, to maintain association with the parent company that funded the project. After an initial discussion with the client, however, it was agreed that although there was a good argument for sticking with the original blue, maintaining this association could be detrimental to the overall brand, and a new colour palette was required. It was decided that this, alongside the new graphic mark, would give the programme a wider appeal and target the intended creative audience far more effectively.

While discussions were underway, preliminary designs centred on the typeface and icon, but once this was finalised, attention turned to the colour palette. We created a broad spectrum of potential colours of a similar tonal value and then pitched them to the client.

The final colour, Pantone 1807 C, was selected for its vibrancy and the psychological associations with creativity and passion, which we and the client both considered to be key attributes of the SP/ARK project.

Once a colour has been defined for a brand, it's a good idea to set aside a wider palette of complementary colours that allow for versatile use across various media, and are also available to assign to sub-brands or other products. It's important to establish these colours as early as possible in the branding process; if sub-brands are then introduced at a later date, there can be a seamless link to the parent branding.

Successfully established brands can be recognised from their colour palette alone and unless colour coding is needed, sub-brands don't necessarily have to be re-coloured. Virgin holds fast to its well-established red with all products and services and, in doing so, each new product launched is immediately associated with the company's existing products and slotted into the marketplace with instant recognition. This is due to the company's successful placing of the brands within the cultural environment.

When creating brand palettes, the number of colours required varies, though as a guide, we usually select between two and four. For our own brand we have chosen a Web 2.0 blue with a palette of three complementary colours. When designing a logo that contains multiple colours, it's important to consider how it will appear when reproduced in a single colour. Where colours of similar shades sit directly on top of one another, the overlaid detail can be hard to define or, in some cases, lost completely when the logo is dropped back into a single colour. How a logo works reversed out is also an important consideration.

There are several websites that can help you with which colours to choose when building a brand palette. One of the most useful is Adobe Kuler, which enables you to define a palette by entering a base colour. The interface then selects a colour palette of five colours from one of seven colour rules. There is also an option to create a palette from an image, as well as a large selection of themes to choose from palettes that have been uploaded by the website's community.

For further reading on colour psychology and symbolism, visit www.joehallock.com and www.ccicolor.com.