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By Mark Brinn
Delve into the world of color and its significant impact on branding. From understanding color psychology and the basics of color theory to creating a harmonious color palette that aligns with your brand's persona. Get inspired and learn how to own your color palette for a cohesive and captivating brand image.

Color in Branding

Color. It’s not just about looking pretty. It’s a heavy lifter in branding. If used correctly it stirs emotions, sparks associations, and shapes how your brand is seen by the world.

The Power of Color

Imagine a red stop sign. It’s not just red because the designer happened to really liked red. Scientifically speaking red has a very long wavelength – and that makes it one of the most visible colors there is. The color red is universally known to signal caution or danger. That’s the power of color. It can silently communicate a message without saying a word.

In branding, color is your silent partner. It’s working in the background, telling your audience how to feel about your brand.

Many (but not all) color meanings are derived from nature. Blue, for instance, is the color of the sky and the sea – it’s calming and cool. On the other hand, yellow is the color of the sun, it’s all about joy and energy.

This is color psychology. It’s understanding the emotions and characteristics different colors convey. It’s a tool you can use to tell your brand’s story.

A Note about Culture

But before we go through the colors one by one, it’s important to note that colors can mean different things to different cultures. White, for example, generally means “purity” in the west – but in Japan – it symbolizes death. As with all areas of design, it’s always a good idea to do local research before making a final decision.

One classic example of a company not conducting adequate local research is Chevrolet. When Chevrolet introduced their car model ‘Nova’ in Latin America, they overlooked the fact that “no va” in Spanish means “it doesn’t go.” Even though the Nova car had other issues beyond the name, the unfortunate connotation didn’t help the car’s success in the market.

Another example is the use of the color green in some Middle Eastern cultures. Many western companies use green to signify environmental consciousness or sustainability. However, in some Middle Eastern countries, green is associated with Islam and is considered a sacred color. This could potentially cause discomfort or be seen as culturally insensitive if used improperly by a brand.

Remember, understanding the cultural implications of color can help you avoid costly mistakes and improve the effectiveness of your international marketing efforts. For the purposes of this guide, we will focus on the generally accepted color meanings in the West.


White’s the color of purity, innocence, and cleanliness. It’s like a fresh start, a blank canvas. Brands use white to convey simplicity and cleanliness.

Think of Apple. Their crisp, white aesthetic screams simplicity and sophistication.


Black, on the other hand, is all about power, elegance, and mystery. Brands use black to show they’re luxurious and powerful.

Take Chanel, for example. Their black and white logo is the epitome of classic elegance.


Grey’s a neutral color. It’s balanced, calm, and a sign of maturity. Brands use grey to show they’re professional and serious.

Look at Wikipedia. Their grey logo tells you they’re a reliable, neutral source of information.


Red’s a fiery one. It’s about passion, excitement, and urgency. Brands use red to grab attention and provoke action.

Coca-Cola and Netflix are great examples. Their red logos are impossible to ignore.


Orange is a mix of red’s passion and yellow’s joy. It’s energetic, friendly, and creative. Brands use orange to show they’re fun and innovative.

Just look at Nickelodeon. Their orange logo is as fun and energetic as the kids’ shows they broadcast.


Yellow is all about happiness, optimism, and warmth. Brands use yellow to convey positivity and energy.

Take McDonald’s. Their golden arches are a beacon of fast, friendly service.


Green symbolizes nature, health, and tranquility. Brands use green to show they’re eco-friendly or health-oriented.

John Deere, with their green tractors, is a prime example.


Blue represents trust, reliability, and calmness. Brands use blue to show they’re trustworthy and dependable.

Think of Intel. Their blue logo is a testament to their aim of building reliable semiconductor chips—most likely some of their technology is powering the device you’re looking at right now.


Purple is the color of royalty, luxury, and wisdom. Brands use purple to convey luxury and quality.

Cadbury, with their purple packaging, associates their chocolate with high quality.


Pink stands for femininity, love, and kindness. Brands use pink to appeal to a feminine audience or convey a caring nature.

I think Barbie owns pink more than any other brand, targeting their predominantly female audience.


Brown is the color of earth, stability, and reliability. Brands use brown to show they’re dependable and down-to-earth.

UPS, with their brown trucks and uniforms, conveys a reliable and grounded image.

Remember, colors are powerful. They can evoke emotions, create associations, and shape brand perception. Use them wisely in your branding.

Understanding Color Properties

The color wheel is like a map of color. It’s a circular diagram where colors are arranged based on their relationships with each other. It’s based on the visual color spectrum – as if you were to wrap a rainbow into a circle.

The Building Blocks of Color

Primary colors are your big three: red, blue, and yellow. They’re like the parents of all other colors. You can’t make them by mixing other colors, but mix them together and you get a whole world of different hues. Interestingly, many of the largest brands leverage these primary colors as their main colors, recognizing their universal appeal and the strong visual impact they provide.

Mix two primary colors, and you get a secondary color. Red and blue give you purple, blue and yellow give you green, and red and yellow give you orange.

A Few More Color Terms: Hue, Saturation, and Value

Now, let’s talk about hue, saturation, and value. Hue is just another name for color. Saturation refers to the purity of a color. A fully saturated color is bold and vibrant, while a less saturated color appears more muted and gray.

Value, on the other hand, is about the lightness or darkness of a color. Add white to a color, you increase its value and create a tint. Add black, you decrease its value and create a shade.

Remember, color is a language. Learn to speak it fluently, and you’ll be able to use it to express your brand’s personality and evoke the right emotions in your audience. It’s a tool, a weapon, and a friend, all rolled into one. So get familiar with it, play around with it, and make it your own.

Creating a Brand Color Palette

The Art of Balance

Creating a harmonious color palette is all about balance. You don’t want your colors to shout at each other. You want them to converse, to complement each other.

  • Start with a base color, the main color that represents your brand. This is the color that you want people to associate with your brand.
  • Add secondary colors that complement your base color. These colors should enhance the base color, not overshadow it. Try secondary or tertiary colors.
  • Finally, choose accent colors for highlights and details. These colors are not necessary, but can add depth and interest to your palette. Be careful, though; too many colors can be confusing. A good rule of thumb is to be consistent with your saturation and brightness; this can help to tie a pallet together.

Finding Inspiration

Inspiration for your color palette can come from anywhere. Look around you. Nature, art, fashion, architecture, even your morning cup of coffee can spark an idea.

Online resources like Adobe ColorCoolors, and Pinterest are great places to explore color combinations and get inspired.

Making it Your Own

Your color palette should be a reflection of your brand’s personality. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try different combinations until you find the one that feels right. Remember, color is a powerful tool. Learn to wield it with confidence and creativity, and you’ll be able to create a brand identity that resonates with your audience and stands out from the crowd.

Case Study: Sean Adams and the Power of Color

Sean Adams was one of my favorite teachers at ArtCenter, and I interned at his firm AdamsMorioka. As the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design programs at ArtCenter, Sean has taught many, many designers like me how to use color to convey a message, to grab attention, and to tell a compelling story.

Adams’ body of work stands as a clear testament to the incredible power of color in branding. His designs aren’t just aesthetically pleasing—they’re strategic, intentionally crafted to communicate, evoke emotions, and build identities.

A Master of Color in Action

One can’t help but notice his fondness for vibrant reds and fiery oranges. These are far from arbitrary selections. Each hue is chosen with careful consideration, serving a specific purpose within the design.

Take, for example, his work for the UCLA Extension Summer program. These designs feature bold, fiery palettes that leap off the page, creating an atmosphere of energy and excitement.

His work for the television network, Nickelodeon, is another striking example. Adams applied vibrant oranges and friendly, playful typography, resonating perfectly with the brand’s young audience. This creative approach resulted in a visually exciting and instantly recognizable identity that kids around the world associate with fun and entertainment.

In his collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he employed an elegant palette of blacks, whites, and golds to echo the sophistication and prestige associated with the Oscars. The end result was a timeless and iconic brand identity that speaks volumes about the event’s rich history and cultural significance.

Sean Adams’ expertise and skillful use of color has left a lasting mark on the field of graphic design. It serves as a vivid reminder that color, when used with purpose and understanding, can transform a simple design into a powerful tool of communication.

Learning from the Best

To dive deeper into the world of color, check out Sean’s books The Designers Dictionary of Color and Color Design Workbook: A Real World Guide to Using Color. These resources provide a comprehensive understanding of color theory and practical steps for creating a harmonious color palette that aligns with your brand’s personality.

Remember, color isn’t just an aesthetic choice—it’s a form of non-verbal communication that directly impacts how a brand is perceived. A keen understanding of color psychology and its cultural implications is vital to building a successful brand.

Colors are just one piece of this brand puzzle. There’s another critical visual aspect of branding: typography. Think about the fonts you see on a daily basis. The sleek, modern typeface of a tech startup. The classic, elegant script of a luxury brand. The bold, blocky letters of a sports team. These aren’t just random choices. They’re part of the brand’s story. And they’re the subject of our next chapter: Typography.

Next, let’s dive into the world of letters and learn how they contribute to a brand’s personality and influence audience perceptions. Because, remember, every detail matters when you’re building a brand. Even the small ones. Especially the small ones.

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