The Color of Conversion

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Utilize the power of colors to achieve maximum Web success

“The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color.”
— Hans Hofmann, German artist


Colors have a very powerful and multi-level impact on us. They can function in very practical ways and help us to make sense of things, such as find our way on a website. At the same time, they trigger our emotions and influence the way we think and feel. Colors are a powerful tool in Web design — if you know how to use them.

Here I will introduce different semantic levels of color, explain when you should make use of them, and give some best practices of how to use colors most effectively on the Web.

Six Semantic Levels of Color
Psychological meaning. For every color, there is a psychological context in which it functions. Colors arouse different emotions in us, depending on our previous experiences and personal preferences.

These preferences are not linked to anything rational. For example, my favorite color can be the least favorite color of someone else at the same time. Symbolic meaning. The symbolic function of a color is similar to its psychological function, only more abstract. Based on experiences, we build up associations with different colors. While the psychological aspect of a color just makes us feel something, the symbolic function makes us feel something because we link it to a significant experience.

Cultural context. Depending on the culture we live in, colors are attached to different meanings. Cultures teach us what colors stand for. These definitions are shaped through different values, beliefs and lifestyles.

The cultural context of colors is an important aspect when using colors in an international and multi-cultural environment. For example, Western cultures associate the color white with purity. In Asian cultures, mostly in China, the color white stands for death.

Political meaning. Colors can be attached to political opinions. As colors can have a symbolic function, they can stand for concrete opinions. Political parties use colors to identify themselves. These colors come to stand not only for the organization, but also for their political points of view, their values and beliefs.

Traditional meaning. Colors have meanings that are simply bound to their own tradition. Be it that red is the color of blood, and therefore naturally functions in an alerting way, or that blue used to be expensive in production and therefore stands for luxury and superiority.

Creative context. Last but not least, the impact that colors have on us depends on the creative context they are used in. In combination with each other, colors change their function and significance. They can become more or less dominant, more or less intense, more or less meaningful.

When Do Colors Influence People?
On the Web, most information is presented to us in a visual way. We come across audio recordings once in a while, but most of the time we are confronted with visuals.

Now imagine there was no color on the Internet and that all websites were a mixture of black, white and different shades of grey. How boring, right? Colors on the Web have many functions. They can make a design interesting and appealing, catch our attention, help us to differentiate between brands and products, and even influence what we think of them. Colors influence us whenever any kind of decision needs to be made.

Whether we exhaustively elaborate on a decision, or make it based on inner instincts, we depend on both factual information and our emotions. And our emotions are highly color-sensitive.

When we use colors in Web design, we need to be aware of their impact on our visitors and we need to use them carefully in order to get the most out of them.

How to Use the Power of Color
Colors influence not only how users perceive you, but also how they act on your website and how they react to what you offer them. There are some best practices that will put you on the safe side and help you to use colors to your advantage.

Colors and your target group. Define your main target group and research what different colors mean to them based on their symbolic, cultural and political background. There are many studies that have investigated the impact of colors on different cultures. For example, the website www.informationisbeautiful. net offers a very informative visualization on the meaning of colors in different cultures.

Colors and your own image. Think of yourself first and define what you want your users and customers to think of you. Choose colors that represent this image for your target group. The selection of your basic colors can have a big impact on how people will perceive you.

A color has many shades. Make sure the colors you choose can be displayed correctly on any digital device your users might use to visit your website. While we can rely on Pantone to match all our printed matters, online we depend on the inconsistent display of RGB colors.

Colors can be overwhelming. It’s important not to use too many different colors on your website in order to avoid over-stimulation. Try to manage with no more than three colors. The website www.colorsontheweb.com suggests one primary, one secondary and one highlight color.

Colors can be confusing. Use colors consistently. As much as colors can work for you, they can also work against you. And, if used inconsistently, you can easily confuse your users rather than support them in reaching their goals efficiently and effectively.

Shades of Success
Colors have quite an impact on us and the decisions we make. Colors differ in their meaning based on their psychological, symbolic, cultural, political, traditional and creative context. Colors play a central role for our judgment and actions — especially in visual environments like the Web.

Colors can be used for both aesthetic and practical reasons. The aesthetic quality of your website is high if people like your design, if they can identify with your identity and if they remember you and your message. The practical quality reveals if people find what they are looking for on your website, and if they perceive it as convenient and satisfying.

About the Author: Paul Veugen is the founder and CEO of Usabilla, a company that builds Web-based tools to collect and share design feedback. Usabilla’s visual surveys help marketers, usability experts and designers collect visual feedback on their websites, mobile websites or apps, and are currently in use by more than 15,000 Web professionals and globally recognized brands such as Warner, EA, Discovery, U.S. President Barack Obama, Sony, The N.Y. Times and Levi’s.

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7 comments

SarahB 07-12-2012 2:29 PM

This was a very interesting article, but I would've liked to see a lot more actionable information here. Keeping the color scheme to a maximum of three colors is great advice, and it's also something specific that I can turn around and implement. I'd love to see more practical information and advice for how to use color effectively -- the theory is fascinating, but nothing beats detailed, actionable advice!

ChipS 07-12-2012 3:10 PM

I have to agree with SarahB. While it was nice to be reminded of these things, this article was way to general to be of any use. This article had me nodding in acknowledgement of common sense ideas but even a little demographic-specific info would be helpful.

Michael Cohn 07-12-2012 3:13 PM

This is a great article.

Here are some additional articles on this topic:

www.compukol.com/.../the-significance-of-your-brand-colors

www.compukol.com/.../the-power-of-color-in-doing-business-across-cultures

JeffS 07-12-2012 3:51 PM

This is an interesting article from a high-level, but where are the colors in the article? It's all text, kind of boring for visual people like myself. I've got to agree with the others as well, the title suggests that we're going to learn how to use color to convert better. I was ready to tweet this article, but thought better of it (sorry).

JeffSToo 07-13-2012 9:14 AM

What? Oh, sorry... I only read the first half of the article. Perhaps this is a direct reaction to a long column of grey type on a grey background, with no visual breaks. Good thing the article wasn't about color - what an irony that would have been...

SusanneC 07-13-2012 5:00 PM

Paul, I loved the link you provided to colorsontheweb.com, which provides a massive amount of excellent and practical information on web coloring schemes.  I just noticed that you provided another link www.informationisbeautiful to help with understanding different cultural meanings of colors.  These two links alone are highly valuable.  Thanks so much for the great write-up, Paul!

Jim Smithson - web design company 10-05-2012 1:38 AM

A web design company must know best when it comes to colour use on a website. A good firm will follow the desires of their client and design it the way they want, but a great design firm will know when a project is going to turn out bad, and give the client the proper changes that are needed to be made. Sometimes, certain colours just would not work for some sites.

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