12 colours and the emotions they evoke

Poetry can make people swoon, and a shocking image can enrage people to action. But one of the lesser-known, but no less powerful, ways to invoke emotion is through colour. There is much written about colour theory, and you only need to look at the world around you to see – and feel – its impact.

Every colour elicits a different and unique emotional response in the viewer, and a clever web designer (or any visual professional, in fact) will know the effect of each colour, plus how and when to use each.

While the discipline of colour theory is broad, this article will teach you the fundamentals in a single, quick-reference source. But before we delve into the emotional nuances of 12 separate colours, we need to first make a quick note about vibrancy.

Different shades of the same colour will also have different effects

Simply put, a colour's vibrancy is how dark or light it is. The tricky part about vibrancy is that, just like each individual colour has its own properties, so does each shade of the same colour. 

While light green and dark green have more in common than green and purple, they will still have smaller, more subtly different effects on the user.

Below, we'll explain all the noteworthy differences between a colour's shades, regarding their impact on web design. As a general rule, though, brighter shades tend to be more energetic, while darker shades feel more relaxing. The brighter shades of calls-to-action attract the eye, while the darker shades in backgrounds help create an immersive effect.

Now on to the impact on viewers of different colours...

01. Red

Used here, red is playful and stimulating

Passionate, aggressive, important

As a dominating colour, red adds gravity and heightened awareness – quite literally, as the colour increases blood circulation, breathing rates, and metabolism. 

Red can take on a variety of meanings, associated with both love and war, but the unifying factor in all meanings is a sense of importance. Think of the red carpet.

Red is a colour best used cautiously. Its knack for attracting attention makes it a priceless tool for designers, but used excessively it will inhibit relaxation. Lighter shades emphasise the energetic aspects of red – including youthfulness – while darker shades emphasise power, and even durability, such as a brick wall.

The landing page for the game design company Playtika has an aggressive but potent flair. Playful and stimulating, the red suits the cheetah logo – a powerful icon itself, softened by its cartoonish qualities and anthropomorphic smile.

02. Orange

Epic uses orange as a highlight colour on its website

Playful, energetic, cheap

Sharing red's energising aspects, but to a safer degree, orange is a good way to add excitement to a site without severity. It is generally playful, and some claim it creates haste and plays on impulse. It can even signify health, suggesting vitality and vibrance.

Creative agency Epic uses orange as the highlight colour on its website. The choice emphasises the team's playfulness and youthfulness.

03. Yellow

Yellow can be revitalising or jarring

Happy, friendly, warning

Yellow is a strange colour: it is often associated with happiness, but also activates the anxiety centre of the brain. Like red and orange, it's able to stimulate and revitalise – it's the colour of warning signs and taxis – but use bright yellow sparingly because of the potential negative connotations.

Lighter shades play on the happiness aspects, reminding users of summer and the sun. Darker shades, including gold, add more weight and give a sense of antiquity.

The bright yellow-dominated colour palette on the Post-it website is synonymous with the product itself. It creates an energetic vibe, and is instantly recognisable as that particular brand.

04. Green

The green scheme emphasises Massis' natural qualities

Natural, stable, prosperous

Green mostly represents the environment and outdoors, for obvious reasons, making it the clear choice to suggest nature and an organic quality.

As the bridge between stimulating, warm colours (red, orange, yellow) and calming, cool colours (blue, purple), it is the most balanced of colours, lending it an air of stability. It's also a popular choice as an accent or for calls-to-action because it stands out, but more softly than the warmer colours. In Western culture, it also represents money and financial safety.

Massis Tea plays on its natural qualities with the green scheme for its site. The green top navigation bar, green logo, and photograph of greenery all work together to accentuate the brand's ties to nature.

05. Blue

Image courtesy of Evolve Wealth

Serene, trustworthy, inviting

Blue is one of the most popular colours in web design – and for good reason. You see blue on a lot of websites because, to put it simply, it is the colour of trust. Blue is the colour of calm and serenity, and as such inspires security and a feeling of safety.

For this reason, blue is a colour often used by banks: CitiBank, Chase, Capital One and Barclays, for example, all use blue. However the calming effects also make blue a friendly and inviting colour, which explains its adoption by Facebook and Twitter.

As if that weren't reason enough to use it, blue is also incredibly versatile; its vibrancy has more drastic effects than other colours. Light blue is the colour of water and the sky, so it generally has a refreshing and free feeling – even energising if bright enough, but still retaining that reliable calm.

Darker blues tend to be more sombre, heightening the security aspects, which makes them an excellent choice for professionalism. Trust is essential for financial advisors such as Evolve Wealth, so most of its site is designed in varying hues of blue.

All this comes at a small price, though: blue shouldn't be used for food-related sites. Because blue foods aren't common in the wild, studies show that the colour actually acts as an appetite suppressant.

06. Purple

Purple has links to wealth and luxury

Luxurious, mysterious, romantic

Long associated with royalty, purple creates an air of luxury, even decadence. Using a purple dominantly is a quick way to create a sense of elegance or high-end appeal, even if your product is budget-minded (an 'expensive' effect that's quite the opposite of orange).

Lighter shades of purple – especially lavender – bring to mind spring and romance. Darker shades add more mystery, and can even symbolise creativity. Darkening the shade will also turn the romantic elements more sensual.

With its ties to personal wealth, WooCommerce chose purple as the colour to represent its WooView app, playing on themes like royalty and panache that fit the function of checking how much money you're making in real time.

Next page: 6 more colours and the effects they have on viewers