Voices in Colour: Three Reasons Why Using Colour is Imperative for Fulfilling our Visual Storytelling Mission

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15th February, 2016
Femina Hip, youth, thinking big, communication for development, C4D
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4th April, 2016

Voices in Colour: Three Reasons Why Using Colour is Imperative for Fulfilling our Visual Storytelling Mission

adobe, colour, colour wheel, triad, colour psychology, colour theory, communication for development, C4D
Did you know that the human eye can see and differentiate approximately seven to ten million colours and tones? Our eyes and brains are amazing instruments. It’s little wonder that marketing experts have been manipulating our purchasing preferences through the use of colour for decades, if not centuries. Here at Communication for Development, we live for vibrant colours! You’re unlikely to ever find a black and white image or design on our website. So, why do we advocate the use of colour in communicating for and about sustainable development? Here, we offer our reflections on how colour can connect people to your cause and even prompt them to donate.
Did you know that orange and yellow can stimulate your appetite? Or that blue evokes trust and loyalty? According to Forbes, the colours you chose can greatly increase your chances of reaching your goals. Colour certainly attracts the eye, and the brain is in turn drawn towards certain tones while it filters out others. But why is it so important for our visual storytellers to use colour mindfully? Here are three reasons why we believe colour is vital for depicting the missions of our non-profit, humanitarian and corporate social responsibility (CSR) clients.

1. Colour highlights culture, diversity and human potential

Most of our visual storytelling takes place in the Global South, in countries with rich cultural practices and colourful traditions. Our clients often task us with demonstrating the impact of their projects, documenting positive changes and giving voices to the people they support. At the heart of our ethos is a strong desire to shift development communications away from ‘poverty porn’, and to ensure that people are portrayed with the respect and dignity they deserve. To this end, vibrant colours, supported by appropriate lighting, are crucial, since they lend positivity and hope to our images, films and designs.

We also believe that telling someone’s story means showing his or her personality. And of course, people don’t live their lives in black and white! So, to truly depict people’s situations, personalities and human potential, we choose to show the full colours of their lives in all their glory, including the cultural elements and traditions inherent within them, wherever they may be in the world. Our ability to perceive colour is a privilege that should be celebrated; to remove this aspect of our world would be a shameful rejection of its vibrancy and diversity.
colour, black and white, culture, diversity, human potential, visual storytelling, development, CSR, communication for development, C4D
Which image better depicts the vibrancy of life? Colour lends positivity to an image, helping us to celebrate cultural diversity and portray people’s personalities at greater depth.

2. Colour can make us more receptive

Psychologists believe that colours have the power to subconsciously affect our mood, inclination and responses. For the purposes of our humanitarian and development clients, who need to make their funding appeals and campaigns as engaging as possible, it is essential for us to harness the potential power of tones and shades. The right hue can provoke uplifting emotions and brighter moods, which make us more receptive to messaging. For example, researchers have found that we are much more likely to share social media content that makes us feel happy and joyful. Consequently, using colours associated with happiness, such as yellow and tranquil greens, could make us more likely to engage with a cause and also spread the word.

Designers and other creative practitioners also use colour to ensure that key messages come across loud and clear. Take call-to-action communications, such as a linked banner saying, ‘Sign this petition now’, or the ubiquitous ‘Donate’ buttons essential to any NGO’s website; bold colours are ideal for these, especially when they contrast with their backgrounds, making the messages stand out. In technical terms, contrasting colours are those that are spaced apart evenly on the colour wheel (try ‘triad’ in this tool of Adobe’s). Complementary colours, found opposite one other on the wheel, also work well.
adobe, colour, colour wheel, triad, colour psychology, colour theory, communication for development, C4D
Contrasting colours are great for making key messages stand out from their backgrounds. Adobe’s online tool also has ‘complementary’ and ‘shade’ functions.

3. Colours can stir the emotions required for behaviour change

Marketing psychologists have been utilising colour to manipulate our emotional responses to brands for years. McDonald’s’ golden arches on a bold red background don’t just amount to a bright logo; this is a carefully thought-out colour scheme designed to subliminally transmit appetite-satiating, low-cost meals. How? Research on our reactions to different colours has shown that yellow can be an appetite stimulant, while red reduces analytical thought and promotes rash actions, thereby stopping us from thinking too much before we enter and order a hamburger! Meanwhile, orange has allegedly evolved in our psyche to denote good value for money (of course, there is no obvious orange in the logo, but the effect of mixing red and yellow together subconsciously evokes it). Think of the well-known brands easyJet, Homebase (for British readers) and The Home Depot (if you’re American). On the other end of the spectrum, darker colours in branding allude to high quality, luxurious products.
colour, colour theory, emotions, behaviour change, communication for development, C4D, logos, easyJet, Harrods, Urban Retreat
Brighter colours are indicative of low cost or good value, as no frills airline easyJet demonstrates. Darker, richer colours denote luxury and wealth, as in the logo of the Urban Retreat café at Harrods on the right here.

Colour for development and CSR: where to start?

With all this emotion-centred colour theory at our fingertips, surely we can apply it to our particular purposes? Imagine if colour could play a role in driving public engagement and building momentum on pressing social issues, or in educating people on public health concerns. Well, we believe it can; in fact, that’s what our team of visual storytelling experts is working on every day. We keep all this in the back of our minds, whatever the purpose of communication; from crafting educational behaviour change materials to designing interfaces for fundraising mobile apps.

Here are a few examples to keep in mind for your own game-changing designs. Colour theorists confirm that utilising a coloured background can arouse deeper emotions than white backgrounds do. This is a useful nugget of neurological wisdom to remember when designing a poster for an appeal, or even the Executive Summary of an advocacy paper intended to tug on policymakers’ heart strings. Consider, then, that the colour blue might help them to trust you. Think about the United Nations’ use of light blue in its various logos, denoting gentle, non-aggressive action and inviting loyalty to a cause. As previously mentioned, red can provoke quick reactions within us and reduced analytical thought. It does not hold our attention well, however, and makes it hard to concentrate, so it might be a bad design choice where you need people to stay with you and keep reading.

Finally, for forging harmonious connections, look no further than pink. The Journal of Orthomolecular Psychiatry revealed a remarkable study that found that pink slows down our endocrine systems and tranquilises tense muscles. In this relaxed state, people are more open to forging positive connections and feeling goodwill. With this insight, it’s easy to see how useful pink could prove to be in fundraising or in seeking a change in behaviour.


Although sceptics exist, and psychologists caution that our reactions will always remain subjective, ultimately tinged by our personal, past associative experiences with colours, we maintain that there’s much to be gleaned from colour theory. Essentially, people are more likely to change when new ideas and behaviours are visible and appealing to them; colour helps in achieving this outcome. Hues and shades hold the potential not only to make messages stand out, but critically to appeal.

For our team, black and white certainly spells missed opportunities. Some of the designers on our team would even say that colour is one of their most important instruments. It is, undoubtedly, our subtle ally.