Graphic design is about creativity and artistry. But when you’re going to design something for your business or brand, you need to do so strategically. After all, these graphics have a goal that goes beyond self-expression or simply creating something beautiful.
Defining the way you want your brand or product to be perceived, craft a great and lasting impression, get buyers, clients, or partners, are just some of the many objectives in brand marketing, best achieved through the use of stock photography.
Color is as handy a visual element as photography, which has its very own way to direct your audience’s behavior. Wise marketers and designers use color combinations –even in the stock photos they use– very calculatingly, with a helping hand from color psychology, to make sure all branding and marketing materials are both eye-pleasing, and goal-effective.
Today, you will learn the basics of the psychology of color, the meaning of the main colors in use, and the best color combinations for branding to elevate your color strategy, plus tips on how to implement color in stock photos.
Psychology of Color: Colors Interact with Our Minds
Psychology of color is a branch of psychology that studies how humans respond and interact with the different colors our eyes can see. Borrowing from principles of color theory (which is a series of guidelines on color mixing and color interaction), it establishes that colors can affect and determine human behavior, that different colors evoke different emotional reactions, and potentially actions according to that.
This discipline goes back as far as the ancient Egyptians, was affected by Isaac Newton’s discovery of the composition of the color spectrum, and has been largely studied by renowned experts like Carl Jung, who developed art therapy –a form of therapy that uses artistic expression to improve mental well-being– on the basis of color psychology.
Currently, there are a lot of widely researched and conclusive statements about each color, what they mean, and how they impact the human psyche. Knowing them gives you a great upper hand to select your brand colors and marketing color palettes cleverly.
Using color theory and color psychology you can create graphics that evoke the right emotions and trigger your audience’s decision-making process the way you want. High-converting visuals, in a nutshell.
It's proven that strategic use of color can positively affect landing page results, for example. And the color is a very relevant component when it comes to photos for social media, especially if we are talking about photos for Instagram, where visual identities rule.back to menu ↑
Color-Focused Stock Photos & Illustrations
If you’re an avid Stock Photo Secrets reader, or if you are not new to the marketing game, you know that photography and graphics are a staple in any successful marketing strategy. If you don’t know, here you can learn more about the best photos for your next marketing campaign.
Stock photography is a valuable resource not only because it is professional, affordable, and immediately available, but also because it makes it easy to find beautiful photos and illustrations that fit your color combinations!
Simple: there are several stock photo sites that include a color filter in their advanced search engines, to let you search and refine the results of images using color as a parameter.
Here are the best color-search-enabling stock photo agencies:
The stock photo titan with its 230 million images, Shutterstock is well-known for its state-of-the-art search tool that includes, among many other features, a color filter.
iStock, the pioneer company in selling royalty-free stock photos online, not only has millions of photos between budget-friendly and exclusive but also lets you search and sort them according to color with an advanced color wheel filter.
Adobe’s very own stock photo service, Adobe Stock is great because it’s fully integrated into Creative Cloud and makes working with Photoshop or Illustrator a smooth experience, and also because it lets you find images searching by color with lots of hue variations.
La crème de la crème in stock photography, Getty Images is a globally renowned provider of exclusive, high-end images for every purpose. Its large catalog can be explored, searched, and refined according to color thanks to an advanced color wheel search feature.
123RF is a reliable stock photo site with over a decade in business and millions of high-quality stock images awaiting. You can search them by color easily, using the basic color filter included in their search tool.
BONUS: Master the Use of Color in Photos
While color psychology tells you what color to use for each purpose, there is also a smart way to use color in photos –or illustrations– in your marketing visuals.
The key is to avoid these two “don’ts”:
Don’t be obvious – You don't have to include your brand colors in every photo and every element in them. Think in terms of complementary, analogous, or monochromatic combinations (more on this below) to find images with beautiful palettes that fit your theme without being in-your-face visual branding.
Don’t overdo – An image is worth a thousand words, so you don’t have to speak over it with colors. Unless it helps make a statement by context (like in the images that illustrate this article where color is the protagonist), it’s a lot more effective to use photos where your brand colors are a distinctive but relatively low-key element. If your logo is yellow with purple, you don’t need a photo of a guy in a yellow shirt with purple suspenders, you can do much better with one of a man dressed neatly in neutral colors, casually holding a yellow pen.back to menu ↑
The Meaning of Colors: Say It with a Color
Let’s have an overview of what the most popular colors mean and what emotions and concepts they are associated with. This is the crucial info to know to select the right color for your company and the perfect color combination for your branding efforts.
We call primary to those colors that cannot be created by mixing other colors.
- Red: It raises the heart rate and transmits a sense of urgency and meaningful action. It’s associated with powerful emotions, that can be positive or negative depending on context: passion, love, excitement, anger, fear, sense of danger. It also is known as an appetite opener! Target retailer uses red as its main brand color, and McDonald’s uses red and yellow, which is not casual at all as both are energetic colors.
- Yellow: It’s considered the color of optimism, and projects energy in a calmer, subtler way than red. This color is connected to happiness, cheerfulness, and warmth, but it can take a bit of a negative turn as it’s also linked to danger and caution (think of warning signs like for traffic or “wet floor”). A particularity of yellow is that it’s perceived as both bold and light at once. Many food-related brands combine yellow and red for extra power. McDonald’s as we mentioned, but also Denny’s and Lay’s which make yellow their main brand color. Companies like Ikea and Stanley also pick yellow as their predominant hue.
- Blue: It is by excellence the color of trustworthiness, responsibility, stability, and security. Other common associations are calmness, relaxation, and a bit more negative, sadness. Blue is the most-used color in logos and branding, for these very reasons. It’s very popular in social media, where companies like Facebook (dark blue) and Twitter (light blue) brand everything in their logo color.
The colors that surge from the combination of two primary colors are called secondary.
- Orange: It brings in the power of red and the joy of yellow together, resulting in a hue associated with friendliness, playfulness, and extroversion. However, it can also connect with a sense of caution, depending on the context. Big brands exploit the effect of orange in their logos, like Amazon and its friendly orange smile, Fanta which has it as the main brand color, and Dunkin’ Donuts that combines it with hot pink for an eye-catching result.
- Green: It communicates a sense of harmony and balance that helps decision-making, and reminiscences of nature, freshness, health, and relaxation. Green is the easiest color for our eyes to process! Many companies go for the green with their brand color palette: Starbuck’s uses a dark green with white and some teal (or blue-green) accents for a quiet yet unmistakable look. Android chooses a vibrant color in the shades of green for its famous robot icon. Whole Food uses a dark green with lots of saturation to brand their fresh, organic products.
- Purple: Purple mixes the movingness of red and the stability of blue in a perfect balance between emotions and physicality. It’s strongly linked to concepts like creativity, spirituality, mystery, and magic. As well as with royalty, luxury, and sophistication. Interestingly, purple stimulates problem-solving in our brains! Among the brands that go for purple as their main logo color, you can find Cadbury and Milka, as well as FedEx and Hallmark.
- Brown: It’s an obvious connection with earth and ground, thus a synonym of earthiness, ruggedness, down-to-earth. It’s also good for concepts about nature, albeit in a more rustic sense than the simple elegance of green. Nespresso is a brand that uses brown for an obvious connection with coffee. M&M and Hershey’s do something similar with chocolate. And UPS combines brown and gold for a reliable image.
- Pink: It tunes down the intensity of red and results in a soothing effect that in light pink talks about love, romance, nurturing, and delicacy. Stronger hues like fuchsia can also represent youthfulness and fun. LG goes for a bright color pink combined with white and gray to tone it down, while Barbie dolls are long associated with the girly pink of its logo and Flickr uses it just a touch of it for a little fun.
These aren’t really colors, technically speaking, but as our eyes can perceive them, they are considered as such in design.
- Black: It projects authority, intelligence, strength, seriousness, and even sophistication and glamour. However, excessive use of black can take a negative turn and evoke sadness, even evilness. Black is not a color, but rather the complete absence of color. There are many big global brands that stick to black for their image: Apple, Mercedes-Benz, Gucci, and Nike´s swoosh are just some examples.
- White: The strongest association is with purity, clarity, and cleanliness. Taking it a step further it connects with neutrality, equality, balance, new beginnings, and peace. Keep in mind, too much white can turn into feelings of emptiness and isolation. White is not a color, it is the result of a complete balance of every other color in the spectrum. Apple, again, uses white in a lot of their branding and packaging, and it’s not a casual choice. Lego and Coca-Cola use white fonts on a red background to convey excitement and energy with purity and balance.
Tertiary colors are created from the mix of equal parts of a primary and a secondary color. So you can play with these pigments and their meanings, to add depth and variation to your designs.
For example, teal is a combination of blue and green, that projects dignity, elegance, intelligence, and healing.
There is a way to classify colors by their effect on the base of their perceived “temperature”.
Warm colors are those associated with heat in natural elements (like fire or sunlight), which are also stimulating and energetic: red, yellow, orange and their combinations, are all warm colors.
Cool colors, on the opposite, are those that connect with cold elements (like water or ice) and have a soothing effect: blue, green, and purple are considered cool colors, as well as other tertiary combinations that include them.back to menu ↑
Best Color Combinations Tips for Stock Imagery
Now you know what each color represents, grab some useful pointers to use wisely across your branding and advertising efforts! Remember that colors should have protagonism in all your brand designs, from storefront to website, from product packaging to stationery design. Let's learn!
Adobe has the wonderful Adobe Color tool that includes a complete color wheel with features that help you select color schemes according to the parameters you're about to learn below, as well as extract palettes, gradients, themes, that you can also save and apply automatically to your designs on Creative Cloud apps!
1, 2, or 3 Color Combinations
When it comes to choosing your brand colors, it’s best to not overcomplicate. Focus on choosing the perfect color for your logo design, and work from there. This should be the main color for your brand, to develop the right color combination for the rest based on that. If you're at a loss as to what color is ideal for your brand, check out this great logo color selector tool by 99designs!
As a rule of thumbs logos should not have more than 3 colors, normally being one or two main hues and an accent color.
Everything you need to brand, like your website design or your storefront, should be following your logo’s lead in terms of color.
This doesn’t mean to have absolutely everything in the same 2 or 3 color combinations, but to make sure the color schemes you pick harmonize and make sense, marketing-wise.
For more information, check our piece on how to buy a company logo.
Complimentary Color Combinations
One of the easiest ways to ensure your brand colors are impactful is to go for a complementary color palette: colors that are directly opposite one another in the color wheel: yellow and purple, for example.
If you’re going for a triadic color combination, you can choose split complementary colors: one color to be your main, and the two adjacent to the opposite. If your main was yellow, the other two should be magenta and periwinkle (adjacent to purple).
This is a high contrast combination of colors that is certainly eye-catching and helps all the tones pop up.
Red + Yellow – An absolute attention-grabbing combo that impulses decision-making and stimulates appetite
Yellow + Blue – It projects authority with a touch of fun for a relaxed, yet trustworthy image
Blue + Orange – For a sense of playfulness paired with reliability, this pairing is ideal to balance a serious image without making it too strident
Yellow + Black – While it can be associated with warning signs, this combination also exudes a masculine aura and appears approachable and stimulating
Orange + Black – It is also commonly used in warning signs, but this pair is great to communicate creativity and spirit-lifting with practicality and honesty
Blue + Yellow + Green – A smart combination of two primary colors plus the secondary from the mix of both. Yellow and green bring up playfulness and youthful spirit, while blue taints it with a touch of reliability and authority
Yellow + Blue + Red – A perfect triad full of contrast that makes for a vibrant yet trustworthy effect
Analogous Color Combinations
If you’re one for a more subtle style, combining colors that are next to one another in the color wheel –analogous colors– is a good way to please the eye. Going by our yellow example, we should select amber and orange to combine.
This is a low contrast palette with hues all in the same color family that, while beautiful and less clashing, it’s also less prominent so you might need accents of a complimentary tone here and there for better results.
2 color combinations:
Yellow + Green – A combination that translates into the refreshing energy of life and growth.
Blue + Green – While there’s a saying that goes “blue and green should never be seen without a color in-between”, that entirely depends on the tones you use. Navy and teal, for example, work great together. You can make the blue more prominent for a calming effect, or let the green be the main hue for a popping, refreshing look
Blue + Purple – Depending on the tones, this combo can be serious and authoritative, or exciting. As they’re both cold colors, choosing at least one vibrant tone is ideal
Blue + Pink – It’s an interesting pairing where blue appears reserved and modest, and pink is attention-grabbing and fun.
Pink + Purple – The femininity and youthfulness of pink mixed with the luxurious feel of purple is a great combination. You can play with the tones and shades for higher or lower contrast
3 color combinations:
Green + Brown + Beige – This palette evokes nature and earth, but also professionalism and maturity
Yellow + Orange + Light Orange – A perky fun trio that brings an uplifting feeling. Ideally, you’ll pick a light yellow and take advantage of the pleasant gradient effect of the three tones
Monochromatic Color Combinations
Like you probably guessed if you remember your Latin prefixes, a monochromatic color scheme is as simple as using one single color with hues variations according to what you mix it with:
- Tints: lighter hues resulting from adding white. A pastel yellow would be a tint
- Shades: darker hues that happen when you add black. Think of corn yellow.
- Tones: are created adding gray, and can be lighter or darker depending on the balance between black and white in the gray. You could make a light olive tone with yellow and gray, for example.
You can also play with effects, like gradient for example, and with saturation to achieve unique combinations. Take a look at these gradient color examples for the perfect design
Monochromatic is a very, very subtle style and as such it has its charm. But for branding and marketing purposes, it works a lot better if you use at least one complementary color to help it pop.
Trendy Colors vs Accurate Brand Colors
A crossroad you might come to when deciding on brand colors is that of preferring colors that are highly popular –like the luxury and calm champagne tone that leads Shutterstock's 2021 Color Trends, or those picked up in our Photography Trends 2021 report– or ignore trends and focus on your brand’s intended image and meaning.
Besides the obvious changing nature of trends that make it less relevant when choosing colors for a logo and brand image you’ll use for years to come, it’s also worth noting you can play a lot with a color so you can be up to date with the creative market even if you don’t select the specific “it” color of the season.
For example, Pantone Color of the Year for 2020 is Classic Blue, a dark shade that is said to represent “the sky at dusk”. And WGSN is already projecting AI Blue, an electric tint aligned with the neon color trend, as predominant in 2021.
Knowing this and the meaning of blue, you can opt to incorporate blue in different shades (and there are so many shades of blue!) into your color scheme in a way that makes sense to your brand identity. Do you want something vibrant that connects with tropical environments and relaxation and speaks to millennials? Opt for cyan. Need to convey stability, loyalty, and confidence in an ad aimed at boomers? Then the sky blue is a good fit. Are you all for excellence, superiority, and authority? Royal blue is a beautiful color that projects all that.
Point is, trends are relevant for branding, but they should never prevail over connecting your brand to the right identity and target audience. If you’re selling fun, sustainable toys for toddlers, Classic Blue is not going to be a very good match, even if it’s the color of the year. Yet you can find ways to include it that add to your brand identity instead of clashing with it.back to menu ↑
Elevate your Marketing Game with Colorful Actions
Now you know that colors are powerful enough to influence the way people perceive things and determinate their decisions, and you’re armed with the knowledge to use them in your favor.
Boosting up your brand’s awareness and growing your customer base can be done through color by:
- Selecting a basic duo or triad of colors that match your brand’s identity
- Choosing an attractive color combination, wisely playing with contrasts, tints, shades, and tones for a polished final look
- Using color smartly in photography and imagery to highlight key elements and make a memorable, tasteful impact on your audience
So grab that color wheel and start picking the hues of your next design!
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