Color is one of the most powerful elements of design for direct mail, ads, and other marketing materials.
Why? Because color is a form of nonverbal communication. Research has shown that color increases brand identity, assists in memory, increases a reader’s participation in ads, and improves readership, learning, and comprehension.
This is a complicated subject and is worthy of a dozen posts, but I’d like to cover just three important points about why color choice is so important.
Color carries meaning through association.
This meaning can be divided into two parts: natural associations and psychological or cultural associations.
By “natural association” I mean that colors bring to mind certain ideas that everyone understands. For example, green is associated with nature because that’s the primary color of plants everywhere in the world. Blue is associated with the sky. Yellow is associated with the sun. These associations are simple and universal.
Psychological or cultural associations are more tricky. In the U.S., orange is associated with Halloween because pumpkins are a big part of that holiday. But since many other cultures don’t celebrate this particular holiday, that association doesn’t exist. Likewise, while black is associated with death in the West, white is often the death color in other cultures.
There is a “vocabulary of color.”
Colors are not as clear cut as words, but there is a loose meaning for most colors. What follows is a quick definition of some common colors for those who live in a Western culture.
- Black can signify death or evil, but it is also a power color and can be sophisticated.
- White is the color of purity, but can also imply coldness or sterility. Like black, white can be a classy color.
- Red suggests excitement and strong emotions. It’s a color easily recognized by the eye, so it’s good for getting attention.
- Blue is the most popular color, especially among men. It’s calm, soothing, and businesslike.
- Green is the nature color, providing a feeling of tranquility and calm. It can also signify wealth and stability. Today, it is associated with recycling and environmentalism.
- Yellow is warm and cheerful. It’s the most attention-getting color, but can be fatiguing for the eye. Black type on a yellow background provides maximum contrast for short, high-impact messages.
- Purple signifies wealth and royalty. It also carries an exotic feeling. However purple can be a weak color for design.
- Brown is the color of nature, with a feeling of strength and warmth. It can be both down-to-earth or sophisticated. It can also be boring or even evoke a 70′s feel.
- Orange is the combination of red and yellow, so it’s energetic, warm, and enthusiastic. It is often used to draw attention.
- Pink is typically associated with romance and love. It’s a calming color for most people. Just as blue is the “male” color. Pink tends to be the “female” color.
Practical considerations should guide color choice.
Color associations and vocabulary are something you should know. But when it comes to designing marketing items, don’t get carried away. Copy is more important than color, and the whole point of design is to make sure people READ the copy.
So keep a few things in mind:
- Black type on white paper is both practical and legible.
- Your cost savings from printing in two colors can sometimes outweigh any benefits from printing in many colors.
- Colors are seldom psychologically additive. That’s a fancy way of saying that you can’t reap the symbolism of multiple colors by throwing them all on a page. Too many colors will be distracting and make your layout look unprofessional and “cheap.” Keep it simple.
- When in doubt, use blue. It’s a favorite color and it’s easy to use in design. It’s legible for headlines, produces good-looking tints, and lets you highlight key points in the copy while not drawing much attention to the design itself.
- Some colors are hard to work with, such as orange, brown, and pink. They often don’t print the way you want them and tints can be tricky.
- Orange is a great color to grab attention. It goes in and out of popularity, but in general it’s underused. So it lets you stand out more easily.
- Red is a power color for headlines, subheads, phone numbers, and other hot spots. Red and black can create a high-impact, reader-friendly layout. Just make sure you use a red that looks red and not pink or purple.
- The best use for color? Photos and illustrations. Graphics like these can give a layout plenty of “pop” and let you keep the text simple and readable.
There you have it. That’s my quick reveiw of key points for using color in direct marketing. This barely scratches the surface, but there should be plenty here to give you some ideas for improving your marketing materials.