When marketing a new product, companies use focus groups to determine how packaging can influence a purchasing decision. For example, when creating the box for their new product, a laundry detergent company gave out free samples in different colored packages. People were asked to use the product and report back with their thoughts. The formula was the same in every box; only the color of the packaging was change.
The results were astounding. Although the same detergent was given to each person, the opinion of the product varied wildly based on the packaging. Those with a blue package felt the soap was too gentle and didn’t remove stains as well as their normal detergent. However, those with a red package found that the product was too harsh on their clothing. It went on like this for each color; Yellow was ok, but people thought the product lacked quality. Those with purple thought the soap worked well, but assumed it would be expensive in stores. Ultimately, it was found that orange struck the perfect balance between perceived quality, value, and performance.
So why is it that the opinion of an identical product could be swayed so heavily by something as arbitrary as the color of the packaging? We learn through cultural experience to link colors with emotions, instructions, and past experiences. Many of us understand that green means “Go” and red means “Stop” even before we learn to drive. But why do we know it? At what point does that become part of our shared experience?
It has to do with the way our eyes observe color. Red draws the most attention to your eye and is the easiest to see, so it’s no wonder that society would use it to call your attention to immediate, pressing matters, like avoiding an accident. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as well due to red’s association with blood or wounds. The Romans used the color red on their war banners over 2000 years ago. On the other end of the spectrum, green is the most relaxing color to view because of associations with nature, trees, and growth; things that tend to calm us down. Psychologically, it’s seen as a balancer of the head and the heart, making us feel balanced and harmonious.
You can use these shared cultural reference points to your advantage when presenting. Many times, presenters add color as an afterthought without thinking about what message they’re conveying to their audience, and unintentional interpretations can arise. By understanding the psychology behind color, you can use colors to ensure your points are clear. We’ve talked about the stimulating power of red and the balancing power of green, but what about the rest?
Orange is warm and inviting. It stimulates social communication and is both physically and mentally engaging. Since orange is also associated with the fruit of the same name, it can also evoke feelings vitality. It commands your attention, but is more subtle and more inviting than the stark passion of red. Orange can also suggest affordability, fun and adventure.
Yellow is associated with the logic side of the brain. It can help with create mental agility and aid in perception. Text and reference books often use yellow on their covers for this reason. It can also be associated with spontaneity, activity, innovation, and a happy energy that is attractive to children. Be careful, though, because yellow may show up poorly when projected onto a wall. Never, ever use yellow as a font color.
Blue is the color of trust and loyalty. It relates to one-on-one communication and verbal self-expression, as with a teacher or public speaker. Because of this, blue is often used in the logos of banks, insurance companies, and large corporations. It communicates reliability and calm. However, deep blues can sometimes be perceived as conservative and mature, so use neon or electric blues if you want to avoid this association.
Purple, in contrast to yellow, stimulates the creative side of your brain. It represents imagination, intuition, and aspires to high ideals. It can help with spatial reasoning and evokes feelings of restructuring or renewal. Use it when looking for inspiration during brainstorming sessions. In packaging, purple implies luxury, extravagance, and premium quality. The garments of medieval royalty were often purple due to the time and expense needed to create the dye. This may be why the color has carries such regal associations.
Brown is a natural color that is associated with earth, wood, and stone. It can be considered dull when overused, but is warm and neutral, inviting feelings of reliability, comfort, and organicity. For this reason, brown makes a good background color, especially when used with a wood texture to give a presentation some tangibility.
Black is most commonly associated with power and elegance. Used on it’s own, it can carry meanings of authority, control, mystery, and intimidation. The color black can hold many different meanings depending on what colors are used with it. It can be traditional or unconventional, conservative or modern, neutral or bold. Use a black background with light text when you want to call attention to an important slide.
White is opposite from black in color theory, but is very similar in that it can work with any color. White is associated with purity, cleanliness, and efficiency. The healthcare industry uses white judiciously in their buildings and on their websites. Use a white background with a single stark color to give your message a powerful voice. Don’t be afraid of a blank white canvas; minimalist designs work towards simplicity and lack of clutter. The less you put on a slide, the more meaning it will hold for your audience.
Ben Bassak is a graphic designer living in New York. He is certified in Microsoft Powerpoint and specializes in data visualization, print layout, illustration, and presentation design. Nail biting is now medically considered OCD, confirming his suspicions. You can follow him @benbassak