Color Theory Scams: Exposing How Designers Manipulate You With Color

or how I learned to stop worrying and love the plumb

Here’s the dirty secret that designers don’t want you to know about color. All that fluffy talk? It’s all hogwash.

You probably suspected it. Perhaps you have been exposed to a presentation where a designer tried to convince you that a color possessed mystical qualities. You thought it was just blue, but no, it is a special mixture that represented “renewal and abundance.” Your BS detector went off, but the earnestness of the designer spewing the nonsense caused you to bite your tongue. Maybe it was true?

I am here to give you permission to call them out next time you hear that babble. Color jargon gives me the dry-heaves and it’s time someone exposed the babble for what it is, manipulation.

Make no mistake, when you hear someone start spouting off rational like, “Color X represents growth, harmony, freshness, safety, and fertility,” you are not being educated, you are being manipulated.

What passes for color psychology in this scenario is pseudoscience. While it might seem like you are hearing legitimate theory it is really nothing but a greasy sales pitch. The salesman wants you to sign off on the color selection so they can get on with producing your website, brochure, or whatever project they are pitching.

That’s not to say that effective use of color isn’t a valuable skill. The point is that the methods of selling color rarely look anything like the science of color.

An educated designer can make your eyes glaze over with legitimate science explaining why some color combinations work and others fail. And while you may not like the fluffy lingo, you probably wouldn’t want to exchange it for an academic lecture accompanied by slides of rainbow autopsies. I won’t bore you with the science, either, today I just want to talk about the scam.

A tell for manipulative intention is extravagant color names. The hucksters carefully select words that carry heavy emotionally associations. Men are already primed to like blue, so bolstering the color with words like navy, steel, slate, and midnight makes it a slam dunk. Bankers and environmentalists are easy marks for green because of the countless money and nature tropes.

Emotional words get swapped in and out depending on the audience. Forgive the sexism, but if they are selling brown to dudes they’ll use words like rustic, leather, and wood. If the audience is chicks the same colors get reframed with associations like chocolate, saddles, and gold.

Notice the persuasive properties inherent in color names like fire brick, misty rose, hunter green, ivy pasture, bay mist, and burly wood? The goal of these associations is to make you feel good about a color choice by piggy-backing on the emotions of imaginary experiences. This is deception, plain and simple.

But does it work?

There is an irony hiding among all the fluffy language used to sell color. Despite all the flowery lingo, if you survey the use of color in almost any industry you will find two big winners: red and blue. Does that seem odd?

I am not just cherry-picking here. Research shows that blue or red make up more than half off all corporate logos. (As a side note, do you want to guess what shape the corporate squares prefer?)

Color research from http://www.emblemetric.com/2012/07/02/the-color-of-logos/

So why would people prefer red and blue over more nuanced variations like shaded lake or eastern sunset? Are companies too smart to be swindled by color hoaxes? Umm, no.

Most corporate color decisions aren’t made by people with a grasp of color science, instead they are driven by insecurity. The decision maker has no interest in reciting the nonsense he/she heard in the marketing presentation. They have more important things to do than lobby for fuchsia. So they default to what everyone else is doing. Blue is safe. Red is safe and also not blue.

So despite the sales pitches of honest and crooked color mavens alike, most companies resort to predictable color choices. Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM blue.

Can I tell you the story of how I manipulated an organization with my own special blend of color hogwash? About a decade into my design career I got bored designing with color schemes that appeased the insecurities of executives. One more navy blue website and I was going to snap. So I gave myself a challenge.

I was going to do the impossible. I would convince a bunch of suit-wearing white dudes to embrace the ignored stepchild of the color wheel, purple.

I got the chance when I took a job as in-house designer at Zila. I was tasked with rebranding the stodgy old dental technology company into something more modern. I convinced a group of dentists to stop worrying and love the plumb. (You know I can’t get through a post without at lease one terrible movie pun.)

Here’s how I did it. Once I had all the decision makers in a room I brought up a slide with the logos of all our competitors. I asked them what they had in common. Obviously, every logo was either blue or red.

With a backdrop of red and blue rivals I asked the potent question. Do you want to by just like your competition? No, we need to be different. With blue and red off the table, they were primed to accept whatever color I recommended. “Purple? If you say so.” Feel free to steal this trick in your own presentations if you want to avoid the blue/red trap.

With the suits sold on purple, it was just a matter of rolling out the color scheme to the rest of the company. I repeated my pitch for purple and backed it up with, “the decision has been made at the highest level.” My co-workers swallowed the bitter pill, but that didn’t stop the objections. Understandably, the dudes weren’t thrilled about wearing purple shirts at trade show booths or on sales outings.

I needed a way to get the males to embrace the color. I waited until there was a meeting with as many complainers present as possible. When the inevitable purple objections arose I pounced.

“Let’s get one thing straight. It’s not purple.”

Silence. I had everyone’s attention.

“Purple is a color for wizards and unicorns. I don’t want to hear another person call it purple. From today forward it will be referred to as man berry.”

The group erupted in laughter. It became a joke that quickly spread through the company. It gave people a one-liner that they could use to defend the odd color choice. “No, it’s not purple. It’s man berry, thank you very much.”

And that, my friends, is how you manipulate people with color. In case you missed it, this is actually part 12 in my ongoing series called, A Special Hell for Designers Like Me. If this story struck a chord, you might want to jump over to my first story about deceptive product photography and progress through my other confessions regarding various design atrocities I have committed. Color manipulation is just the tip.

Thanks for reading. I write stories like this every week, so follow me if you don’t want to miss my next one. Stay creative.

A Special Hell for Designers continues in part 13 where I tell you about the Fingerprints on the Feculence.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Adrian Hanft’s story.