The Fundamentals of Colour Theory & How it Affects Consumer Behaviour Part 1 – The Basics

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Please note: This image does not accurately represent The Brand Foundry's views on social distancing
Please note: This image does not accurately represent The Brand Foundry's views on social distancing :o)

Colour can have a massive impact on consumer behaviour and perceptions, as the majority of consumers will decide whether or not they like a product within the first seconds of interaction with it. As 90% of that decision is based on colour alone, and 80% of consumers believe that colour significantly boosts brand recognition (Forbes), getting it right is of paramount importance to the success and memorability of your brand.

Colour theory explains how humans perceive colour and provides us with guidelines and rules for how colours can mix, pair or contrast with each other. Sir Isaac Newton developed the first sophisticated theory of colour as part of his work in optics. Humans see colours in light waves, and his colour theory relates to the human perception of wavelengths of light. Colour theory also involves the methods used to produce and replicate colours, and the messages that can be conveyed by the choice of particular colours.

Understanding Colour

Colour results from the way in which our brains perceive certain wavelengths of light. Objects reflect light in different combinations of wavelengths, which is then received by our eyes and interpreted by our brains as colour. For example, if you went outside and gazed towards the heavens, your eyes would see the sky. Your eyes send this data to your brain, which then tells you that the sky is blue (or perhaps grey, depending on the weather). Not everyone interprets colour the exact same way (we’re sure everyone remembers that dress. The blue and black one… or perhaps it was white and gold?) but the expected interpretations of colour by the general population can be accurately predicted.

We all remember that dress...
'That' Dress


As designers, we use two methods for creating & representing colours – additive and subtractive, which form the basis of the RBG and CMYK colour models. The additive mixing model allows us to create a variety of colours by mixing red, green, and blue light sources of various intensities. The RBG model allows for a great variety of colours, including some (such as neon hues) that are impossible to match with CMYK inks. Digital displays such as computer screens, TVs, and projectors use RGB as the colours on the screen are being created by light, rather than by ink. The more light you add to a colour, the brighter it becomes. If you mix all three, the end result will be pure white light.

The subtractive colour mixing model refers to how colours are created from subtracting light from pure white (usually paper when dealing with CMYK) by adding and mixing the colours of cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). Colours existing on physical surfaces, created by paint or ink use this colour model.

Why should I care?

What do these models mean to you and why should you care about which one you use? The answer relates to the colour spectrum that each model is able to produce. Some RGB colours are unable to be replicated by CMYK inks – often resulting in vibrant or neon colours appearing very flat or washed out when printed, or very dull or dark on a digital display. Using RBG colours for print can not only result in an inaccurate representation of colour, but also time and money wasted when items need to be reprinted in the correct colours.

In our next article, we will dive deeper into more colour theories and explore the colour wheel, deliver an understanding of hue, shade, tint and tone, and explain common colour schemes and how they are created.

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