The psychology of color

Sally Augustin, PhD

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minute , 30 seconds

Choosing colors for your small business can be tough. Which one will send the right message? Which sets the appropriate tone? Environmental psychologists have been thinking about these sorts of questions for a long time. They’ve conducted rigorous scientific research into how seeing certain colors influences the way we think and behave. Below are some scientific insights relating to many different colors, and how you may be able to apply them to your small business.


According to Vistaprint’s data, blue is the most popular color selected by their customers for marketing materials. At a global level, if you ask people what their favorite color is, they’re more likely to tell you it’s blue than any other color. Researchers aren’t sure why blue is so popular, but we think its status may have something to do with the fact that during our early years as a species, the things that we valued were blue—for example, skies during good weather and water holes seen from a distance are both blue. This makes sense because blue is generally associated with competence and trustworthiness. Those associations make blue color schemes good options for groups as diverse as financial institutions and teams providing pet-related services.


Black is a widely used and preferred shade. Since many associate black with strength, sophistication, tradition, and formality, its popularity isn’t surprising. Black is often used in the branding of businesses in retail and fashion, or car or handyman services.


What color are people least likely to select as their favorite? Yellow. It´s generally pretty unpopular and is one of the colors least likely to be selected for marketing materials by Vistaprint customers worldwide. Despite being less favorable, there are always exceptions where yellow can be used as an accent color to help stand out.


Red is linked to love, danger and excitement. Research has shown that looking at red can degrade our analytical reasoning—but seeing red on a wall or similar surface does give us a burst of strength, so it’s the perfect color to look at as you lift weights.


Seeing green, even briefly, has been tied to enhanced creative thinking, so using it in marketing materials may be a good idea if people need to do a little creative thinking to understand why a marketing appeal is relevant to them. Green is associated with nature and environmental responsibility, which can make greens good color options for solar panel selling firms, for example. Green is often linked to spring and rebirth, making it a good option for people selling services that will help people start new lives, such as health or education products—and the marketing of these products may also benefit from blue’s association with competence and trustworthiness.

Overall, researchers have found that looking at hues which are less saturated and relatively bright, such as sage greens with lots of white mixed into them, is relaxing and looking at more saturated colors that aren’t as bright, such as Kelly greens, is more energizing. The use of Kelly green in marketing materials may be a good idea if the goal is to encourage people to act right now, but a bit of diluted sage green in a spa’s materials can make a relaxing vibe top-of-mind, even before people get to the retreat.

Brown and Purple

Brown is linked in our minds to ruggedness and purple to sophistication, so, generally, any situation that encourages the use of one probably discourages utilizing the other.

What this means for your business

The meanings we attach to colors are affected by the specific experiences we have with them, so select accordingly. For example, if a popular new cartoon character is yellow, expect a few more positive responses to yellow than usual. Review any colors you choose with a small sample of the people you’d like to respond positively to your marketing materials before finalizing any color selections to uncover any of these sorts of links.

It’s important to remember that lots of different sensory experiences combine to lead us toward a particular response to something we see. And there are many factors, in addition to sensory experiences, which contribute to our opinions about a business, large or small.

The colors you select send important messages—choose wisely and apply what environmental psychologists have learned about the science of seeing colors.

About the Author

Dr. Sally Augustin works with brands to develop the design of places, objects and services that support desired cognitive, emotional, and physical experiences. Clients of her company Design With Science include manufacturers, service providers, and design firms in North America, Europe, and Asia. Sally’s work has been discussed in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Forbes and Psychology Today.

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