The best logo colors for your project all come down to how you want it to be perceived. Shifting from culture to culture, color has engrained cultural connotations. In North America, we’ve built a fairly robust structure of color perception. That structure hasn’t changed much over time, even if the onslaught of digital design continues to evolve how color and logo design interact.
Red // Stop / Green // Go
Based on tradition and how we’ve been told over the years to react, each major color gives us meaning, and the best logo colors use this meaning to impact perception. Red conveys excitement, energy and passion; orange: enthusiasm, happiness and fascination; yellow: cheerfulness, intellect and energy; green health, freshness and wealth; blue: trustworthiness, dependability and security; purple: mystery, wisdom and spirituality; brown durability, earthiness and naturalness; black: exclusivity, sophistication and power; white: purity, perfection and simplicity. But here’s the thing: all of these are psychological constructs.
Bevil Conway, director of the Sensation, Cognition and Action Laboratory in the Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research at the National Eye Institute says that color is an essential component of what they study, seeing how what the eye brings into the brain drives thoughts, perceptions and actions.
“Color is the richest and oldest psychology of study,” he says. “We know what goes in (through the eye) and we know what goes out (via actions).”
The study of color, though, doesn’t show biological responses, simply psychological ones. Red doesn’t naturally heighten excitement levels in the body; we’ve simply been conditioned to believe that red translates to excitement, and the best logo colors evoke this corresponding response in us. “I don’t think there is a simple look-up table with this color means X because of some biologically constrained circuit,” Conway says. “It isn’t the case that the blue of IBM makes you feel steady and trusted because it is somehow hard-wired. That is a convention for meaning in the way we use color.”
Conway cites an example of a town with a variety of quality Indian-food restaurants all located on the same street. “It isn’t that the street is endowed to have good Indian food, but we have decided that the street is where we are going to have good Indian food. We use color in the same relevance. It has communicative potential, and I buy into those conventions we have established.”
The New York Times is black, white and grey to remain clear of the subjectivity of color. MIT and Harvard use crimson to convey the excitement and the dynamic feel of youthful drive. IBM blue wants to convey trust. UPS offers us yellow and brown for warmth. “Those are useful conventions that can help a company project a particular image,” Conway says. “If you want to project dynamic and creative, purple is a good way to go, but that doesn’t mean that a wire connects a reflex that connects purple to creativity.”
Cultural Research Defines Color Choice
As designers create in modern society, the norms of creating logos and the standards of the best logo colors evolve, says Michael Raisch, senior design and new media director at well-known sports design studio Fanbrandz and lead at Raisch Studios. “You can look at milestones, where there has been a shift in design,” he says. “Sports was about physicality and manufacturing an embroidered patch. Now we are doing things you would have never tried with gradients or certain aspects of RGB that were completely unreproducible.”
Raisch cited an example of working on a new logo that focused first on color in the creative brief as a way to tell the brand story, even more than the design. That color study led the design team to put vibrant colors right up against each other, letting them play off each other. This strategy, often associated with Latin culture, gave the logo a flare and offered a fresh approach. “Generally, you’d say don’t put colors that vibrate together,” he says.
Whether a company or a sports team, the colors chosen then become important for the entire ethos of the organization, from a rally towel filling a sports stadium to brown trucks carrying packages worldwide. Studies show that having a defined color for your brand can increase brand recognition by 80 percent.
With that said, Raisch pointed out a current trend of companies opting for one-color logos and then placing them over different backgrounds to create new colorways or even interchanging colors depending on the usage, allowing for a constant flow of fresh color choices while keeping one color constant.
When Raisch designs a new logo, he says he works in black and white, partly to focus the client on design and partly to make something so solid and grounded that it can exist as any color. That final color choice, though, can only come after plenty of research into culture. “You can then start imparting color and do some really wild stuff there,” he says. “Once you get into the color space, you can achieve so many completely different looks.”
Of course, the best logo colors are choices that, as Raisch says, understand it’s “all about perception.”
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.