The psychology of colour


How you can use colour to create the right reactions in your audience




Are you feeling blue? Are you green with envy? Or red with rage? Most of us realise that colour influences our emotions and our behaviour. We were recently designing an event for a brand and we got talking about lighting. The assumption was that the room should be lit in green, because that was the brand colours of the company. This makes sense - colour a clear identifier for brands - and in fact, nearly all events are designed and lit in the company’s brand colours - almost without exception. But is that the right reason? Events are not logos.

The event in question was an annual conference and the guests were there to get together, collaborate, build pride in their organisation and generally have a great couple of days away from the office. Everybody in attendance worked for the company and would be very familiar with the brand’s corporate identity already, to the point where they are probably permanently surrounded by it in the office. We agreed that this wasn’t a branding exercise so if we want 500 people to collaborate, why not light the space in colours that create the right mood for co-working?

Many studies have found that our choice of colours, when creating an environment, will have a significant impact on one’s mood. It makes sense then that we, as experience designers, choose our colours very carefully. Halloween parties aside, you don’t need me to tell you that people don’t look great when lit in green. Spending two days in a green LED-lit room is unlikely to lead to collaboration and more likely to lead to distress.

Photo by Werner du Plessis

Photo by Werner du Plessis


According to "Color psychology: A critical review". Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs by T. W. A. Whitfield and T. J. Wiltshire, the general model of colour psychology relies on six basic principles:

  1. Colour can carry a specific meaning.

  2. Colour meaning is either based in learned meaning or biologically innate meaning.

  3. The perception of a colour causes evaluation automatically by the person perceiving.

  4. The evaluation process forces colour-motivated behavior.

  5. Colour usually exerts its influence automatically.

  6. Colour meaning and effect has to do with context as well.

From what we know, vibrant colours such as yellow and orange will encourage communication and make us more likely to socialise. Warmer shades of these colours will even inspire relaxation and creativity - which makes you wonder why most offices are so grey, or conferences so dark. Darker colours, such as purples and deep blues can create a sense of comfort, yet almost every living room in Norway is white. This might be explained by the fact that white symbolises happiness, sincerity and purity – three values Scandinavians hold dear so as always, understanding your audience is key. Culture is another important factor when choosing colours as the table below demonstrates.




In most studies and cultures, red signifies “excitement and power” so it is no coincidence that we associate red with Ferrari, even though their logo is largely yellow. Black signifies “sophistication”. The band The White Stripes somehow managed to “own” red and black – and by default own “excitement, power and sophistication” through their album covers and stage sets.

On the colder end of the spectrum, blue will inspire thoughts of corporate competence. The home page of Norwegian company Yara holds the mission statement “responsibly feed the world and protect the planet”. Imagine this statement with a red background, it doesn’t work, but that should not necessarily mean that Yara’s next event should be designed in blue.

The colours we choose will invoke a different reaction on our audience. It is important to challenge whether the right colour for the logo, is necessarily the right colour for an event space. What reaction are you looking for?