Colors and Emotions: How Different Colors Affect Perception and Mood

Colors and emotions are intrinsically connected. Picture this: you’re outside, the sun is out and you’re standing on vibrant green grass next to a blue lake, underneath a clear sky. How does it make you feel? Perhaps more relaxed and uplifted.

Now, what if the sky suddenly turned red, the grass was purple, and the lake turned black. Our guess is the feeling wouldn’t be so relaxing! Color and emotion go hand in hand, and the meanings we assign to those colors are all learned and developed over time.

We wanted to learn more about people’s perceptions of color, so we sent a survey to 2200 entrepreneurs in 50+ countries and asked them to describe eight different colors in one word. The findings turned out some interesting results. While there were common descriptions made for each color, the results were surprisingly varied. For instance, red was predictably associated with love, but also evoked feelings of danger. Blue was associated with feelings of calm, but also feelings of sadness. It was clear from our findings that color gains its associations differently world-wide. But how does this happen?

How do colors gain their associations?

rolls of colored thread

From a young age, children begin to develop associations with colors based on their environment and what they’re taught. If you asked a child in North America what color a duck is, chances are they would say yellow, likely having learned from a picture book.

But, if you were to ask a child in the Candoshi village of Peru the same question, they would instead compare the duck to something—perhaps a fruit or flower—with a similar color. This is because the Candoshi people don’t have words to describe color at all!

Language, as researchers have found, shapes our different perceptions of color. Compare an English-speaking child who can discern between the colors “moss” and “sage” to a Dani child in Papua New Guinea who speaks a language that only has two color terms (dark and light)—their concepts of color develop quite differently.

From childhood to adulthood, our language and culture reinforce the emotional meanings we attach to color. We start to distinguish between sad colors and happy colors, and we associate certain hues, like the warm colors of fall, with cozy sweaters, pumpkin pie, and all things warm and fuzzy.

The impact of color

Color can even influence performance. Researchers at the University of Rochester and the University of Munich found that when students saw the color red prior to taking a test, it impaired their performance. Since red ink is traditionally used for marking errors on school papers, the color is associated with mistakes and failures in academics. In their experiments, even seeing a flash of red made people do poorly on a test. The researchers concluded that color can have an effect on people even without their knowledge.

Color theory—the psychological effects of color on human behavior—plays an underestimated role in consumer’s lives. Companies and marketers have long known that color and brand identity work together to ignite memorable feelings and influence perception—from the vibrant, happy yellow in the McDonald’s and Cheerios logos to the natural green associated with Whole Foods and MEC. And when it comes to luxury brands, there’s no shortage of memorable black logos—Chanel, Rolex, Bentley, the list goes on.

When choosing colors for a logo or other design project, it helps to know the basic design principles and to familiarize yourself with a color psychology chart.

How to provoke moods and emotions using color

While differences in the survey findings were evident, common associations in how people perceived color stood out. These associations are important to consider before leaping into a choice of color for your brand. We peeled through our survey results and put together the eight most common feelings and qualities that color can help stimulate.

Mood: Fresh and uplifted

woman looking uplifted in a forest

To encourage feelings of optimism, life, and growth, green was found to be the most popular choice. Survey respondents in France, Spain, and Portugal, used the word “hope” in particular.

Green is a common color used in the financial industry – optimistic growth is what consumers want after all! In the US, it’s also the color of money – the US currency has been green since the 1800s. TD Bank Group, H&R Block, Northern Trust have all taken advantage of these associations with green.

About 28% of respondents in the survey associated green with nature, which comes as no surprise when we think of trees, parks, and other outdoor spaces. The vast majority of environmental and outdoors companies, such as The Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance, and MEC use green in their branding for this reason.

Mood: Cool

purple amethyst

The color that won the most points for “cool” was blue (19% of respondents), though it’s not completely clear if the respondents meant cool as in temperature, or cool as in awesomeness. We think the latter – and Twitter, Facebook, and Skype would probably agree.

In second place, the color purple also evoked similar feelings. Words like “cool” and “vibrant” were most commonly used. It’s no wonder there are so many sports teams that wear purple proudly: LA Lakers, Baltimore Ravens, Minnesota Vikings, to name a few.

Mood: Calm

calming teal by the beach

Approximately 23% of respondents associated the feeling of calm and peace with the color teal. Teal reminded people of beach vacations—particularly in Germany, France, Brazil, and Spain. You can find teal-colored logos in travel companies, such as Marlin Travel and WestJet, as well as brand products that calm and soothe, such as David’s Tea and The Honest Co.

The not-so-distant cousin of teal, blue, also had strong associations with the feeling of calm –  about 17% of respondents used the words “calm” and “peace” to describe blue. While respondents in Australia, Slovenia, and the United Arab Emirates felt that purple, perhaps related to the relaxing effects of lavender and amethyst, were also associated with calm.

Mood: Happy

how colors impact emotions

It would probably not come as any surprise that the most common color associated with happiness is… drumroll… yellow, of course! Respondents used the words “happy”  “bright” “sunshine” and “light”. Many food companies use the color yellow in their branding to encourage feelings of instant happiness—think McDonald’s, Cheerios, Burger King, Denny’s, Lay’s, Subways. A notable logo outside of food would be the dating app, Bumble—happiness being merely a swipe away.

Since yellow is near the color of gold, it is also commonly associated with wealth. Particularly in Canada, the US, China, South Africa, and Germany. The Interac logo, in particular, does a great job of depicting that wealth is just finger touch (or tap) away, and Goldcorp’s obvious gold bars in its logo fit the bill for the gold production company.

Mood: Feminine and youthful

bridesmaids taking a selfie

Globally, we have one very strong color association when it comes to the quality of femininity—pink. Whether that’s Victoria’s Secret PINK, the Breast Cancer Awareness logo, or of course, Barbie.

Pink is associated with youthfulness, particularly in the US, UK, and Australia. When we think of Baskin Robbins and Hello Kitty, that’s exactly what comes to mind.

Mood: Loyal and trusting

Blue was a big contender when it came to feelings of trust, and loyalty. The color has strong associations in the health, financial and law industries. From BlueCross to PayPal, there are countless companies that use blue in their branding to instill trust.

On the flip side, however, blue was also viewed as boring. Particularly in Denmark, blue is associated with the bank and law industries, respondents felt blue is “conservative” and “boring”.

Mood: Warmth

woman hugging her daughter in the fall

Warmth and the color orange are synonymous. This is likely due to a global association with the element, fire, and its orange hues.  A mix of sunshiney yellow and dynamic red, orange demands attention while still conveying warmth and friendliness. Think Tangerine bank, FedEx and Amazon, which are all service providers.

Mood: Passion and love

A simple Google search of the word “love,” will flood your screen with red-colored hearts. More than 21% of respondents in the survey used the words “passion” and “love” to describe the color red. The color excites and draws strong emotions. It’s a powerful and attention-grabbing color, seen in logos like CNN, Netflix, Firestone, Time magazine, and Target.

Conversely, over 22% of respondents had heavier associations with red, using words like “blood”, “power” and “anger” to describe how it made them feel. In certain countries, respondents associated red with bravery (Indonesia) and danger (Kenya)—like love, these are strong emotions, too.

Ultimately, perceptions of colors are subjective and there are no hard rules. We’ve certainly developed hard-wired associations—it would be shocking to see a pink SUV in an FBI chase scene on TV! Yet, we are not limited to these associations—understanding color theory, and color combinations are a great first step to get creative, play with color and lead you to design a logo that works best for you. Check out our video below for more information on color theory!

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