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How To Use Color Psychology To Trigger Emotions

Color is an integral part of your poster design. Through the use of different colors, you can direct the viewer’s eye, emphasize important aspects or information, and strongly or subtly influence the reaction of your audience. Your color choices set the mood for your printed poster and are a complex, yet very accessible tool for evoking a whole range of emotions in viewers.

To help you stand out with your poster design and achieve the desired results among your target group with your printed poster marketing, Chilliprinting has compiled a guide to color psychology. Learn the basics of color theory and how to trigger emotional responses with your poster design by adding a layer of feelings through color, tones and hues.

Introduction to Color Theory

Before we delve into how colors connect to emotions, it is important to understand the basics of color theory. Colors can be divided into three levels: primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Yellow, red and blue are the three primary colors. Mixing two of these half and half results in the secondary colors: purple, green, and orange. On the color wheel, these are between the primary colors. Tertiary colors are created by adding more of one primary color than the other. This results in something closer to the primary color and names such as blue-green or red-orange.

color wheel - online printing - chilliprinting
Color wheel with primary colors yellow, red and blue at 12, 4 and 8 o’clock. Secondary and tertiary colors are inbetween (image source).

Pure Colors

The primary, secondary, and tertiary colors are very saturated and are called pure colors or hues. Notice their intensity and brightness.

Tints, Shades, Tones

Further additives to pure colors create tints, shades, and tones

  • Tint: lighter, paler and less intense colors created by mixing a pure color with white. Tints are often called pastel colors.
  • Shade: darker and dull colors created by mixing a pure color with black.
  • Tone: adding both black and white and therefore gray to a pure color creates a tone. Adding different levels of black and white quickly reduces a color’s intensity.

Color temperature

color temperature - color psychology - chilliprinting
warm and cold – Austori. Notice the impact of color temperature in this images.

The colors on the right side of the color wheel are generally perceived as warm. Yellow, orange and red can add warmth to your design. The blue and green colors on the left are cool colors and can add a chilling effect to your printed poster.

Emotional Responses to Colors

We all have different reactions to certain colors just as we have different preferences. However, there exist generalities as to how color stimulates us and whether we realize it or not, we associate key concepts with given colors. In your poster design, you can therefore trigger an emotional response through color choices.


We associate vitality, heat and energy with the stimulating color of red. It is powerful, dynamic and physical, and the sight of pure red can raise excitement and increase blood pressure. Red makes us think of love and affection, but also of blood and fear. You can use red to create an energizing, heating effect, a powerful presence or an attention grabber. Yet the color is also a stop sign and can communicate aggression, warning and danger.


The happiest color in the spectrum, yellow commands a range of emotions. We associate sunshine, warmth, welcome, joy, energy, happiness, brightness and intellect with yellow. It symbolizes creativity as well as optimism, cheer or enlightenment. Yellow has a long wavelength and is therefore very visible and easy to see. You can use it for instilling confidence, inspiration, happiness, self-esteem, creativity, friendliness and generally lift the spirit of things. However, too much yellow can lead to irritation, anxiety, anger or frustration.


blue - color psychology for posters - chilliprinting
Gravity Film Poster – Global Panorama. Notice how the use of the color blue provokes a feeling of loneliness, coldness and anxiety.

Blue stands for tranquility, security, trust, reliability, and peace. We associate the color with loyalty, calmness, intellect, and often masculinity. Blue has a soothing effect and evokes a much more mental response than red. It makes us think of water, coolness and airiness and helps us concentrate and focus. Unfortunately, “feeling blue” does not bear a great connotation and carries distance, loneliness, and coldness, so avoid too much blue in your design.


Welcoming and stimulating, orange combines the power and energy of red with the joy and positivity of yellow. Our responses to the color are full of warmth, motivation, enthusiasm, fun, freedom, courage, friendliness and success. Use it to stimulate and instill freshness, playfulness, sensuality and energy. Too much orange can be perceived as bland, ignorant, or sluggish.


Green fuses the yellow of the sun with the blue of water to a color we associate with balance, harmony, nature, and growth. It also balances both the emotional and the logical and is the color that occurs most often in nature. The sight of green is calming, restorative, quieting, and refreshing for the eye. We feel comforted by green and are able to compose or wind down. You can use green to represent health, freshness, the earth and environment, healing, and hope. However, negative connotations include envy, jealousy, guilt, and greed.


You can create dramatic effects with purple: it symbolizes luxury, royalty, nobility, wealth, ambition, and loyalty. It also combines the physical and spiritual and can provoke thoughts, contemplation, creativity and imagination. The energy of purple is soothing, but centering the attention inwards into wonder and introspection. It is the color for magic and mystery, but the wrong tones can seem cheap. Don’t overuse purple.


Pink is a tint of red and therefore has also a physical effect, yet it is more soothing than stimulating. This lower intensity can evoke compassion, happiness, warmth and tranquility. We associate love and infatuation with pink, but it is also a color overused in pop culture and too much pink can seem immature or draining. Use pink appropriately to show caring, understanding, and compassion. We often think of healthy, sweet and playful things when we see pink.


brown - color psychology for posters - chilliprinting
While the color brown does not make this poster stand out, it hits the theme ‘wood sculptures’ perfectly by creating a feeling of reliability and security.

Tones of brown evoke sensual feelings: chocolate, coffee, earth. In turn, brown is more grounding than stimulating, offering comfort, protection, security, support and structure. Brown makes us feel serious or belonging and invokes reliability. On the downside, brown can seem reserved, dogmatic or conservative.


It is fairly easy to create stark contrasts with black and evoke strong reactions through dramatic effects. Black can introduce elegance, sophistication, seriousness, control, or even independence. Use black for high contrast, great legibility and strong outlines. You can convey authority, power, class, formality and strength with black, but too much can overwhelm, depress, and create gloom or emptiness. Remember that black is very reserved because it is the absence of all colors. Black speaks strongly in comforting enclosures and as professionality, but avoid associations of melancholy or death.


In poster design, white areas are devoid of printed color. Use white to declutter, provide mental clarity, clean surfaces and a sense of purity, freshness, innocence or goodness. We associate cleanliness, peace, new beginnings, refreshment, air, open space and health with white. You can create balance, equality, and simplicity with it, highlighting one concept or idea. Too much white space can create ideas of isolation, emptiness, loneliness, or design not thought through.

How To Choose Color Combinations Wisely

When you have a clear concept for your printed poster design, it should be fairly straightforward to pick a color that goes best with the kind of emotional response you want to trigger among your target audience. Combining individual colors can be a bit more tricky: you want to contrast, balance or harmonize them just right, adding to the overall effect, while still standing out with your poster.
In general, high contrast is a good choice for important content. Opt for visibility and legibility, but keep in mind that if everything is high contrast, nothing can stand out. For best effects, you need to learn to master the art of creating a color scheme that gives you options for contrast as well as balance and harmony while keeping things minimal.

Pick Your Palette

The color wheel is your starting point for building a poster palette of colors. Keeping color combinations simple is a safe bet, so choose 2 or 3 colors.


Two colors with opposite positions on the color wheel are called complementary colors. The part they are missing is on the other side of the wheel, thus creating an attraction. If you look at the primary color blue, you’ll see it’s complementary to orange, which is comprised of the primary colors yellow and red. Adding blue completes it. Likewise, yellow and purple and red and green are opposites. Complementary colors allows you to build basic palettes. When designing your poster, stick to a ratio where the primary color dominates at about 7:3.

More Options

To give you more options, you can create your color palette by splitting the complementary color. Pick a primary color, then add the two colors adjacent to its opposite color to your selection. If red is your primary color, you can use green-blue and green-yellow as your two supporting colors. These palettes have less tension but still offer enough excitement for the eye and the possibility to evoke dynamic, meaningful responses.

If you are looking for more subdued, harmonious responses, you can pick related colors which reside next to each other on the color wheel. These won’t clash as opposites and are great for pleasing and relaxing posters with an equilibrium. To go further in one direction, pick a primary color and create a palette out of its tints, shades, and tones. This monochromatic approach can be used on its own or be contrasted with one complementary color.

For more sophisticated color combinations, place the shape of a triangle, rectangle or square inside the color wheel and use the three or four colors at the respective corners, such as orange, red, blue, green. Again, the ratio is important: avoid visual noise by picking one dominant color, then using the remaining ones for highlights. Psychologically, a triangle combination is more stable while offering vibrant colors.

With the Chilliprinting guide to color psychology, you should now be able to evoke the emotional responses you want from your audience with your printed posters. Make sure to also read our article on How To Stand Out With Great Poster Design and let us know in the comments how you use colors in your poster campaigns and print marketing!