Color Theory – Part 3 Neutral Colors

Color Theory – Part 3 Neutral Colors

We’ve come to the final post in our three-part color theory series – neutral colors. They can be the easiest and the hardest colors to use. Almost all design has neutral colors in it and all design is displayed surrounded by a neutral color (consider the white background on a website). Because variations of white and black are so prevalent in every day life, it can be hard to get a design using neutral colors to stand out. But not impossible. When done well, neutral color designs can be classy, powerful or down-to-earth and comforting.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of choosing a neutral color as the main color in your design, rather than as an accent color for copy, borders or backgrounds.


Could there be a more boring color? Brown can feel dirty and worn out. But it can also feel grounded and stable. In situations where black would be too intense, brown can be serious and reserved. It is most often used to represent the outdoors in a woodsy, earthy way.

Campgrounds and survival brands can use brown successfully. UPS has been able to play off of the stability of the color for their brand, but most industries may risk looking dull. Use it prudently and it can work.


Intense, formidable and formal. There is no soft-shoeing around when using black as a main color in a design. Choosing a color that is associated with evil, mourning, death and the occult but also as sophisticated, modern and edgy, or even conservative and traditional is a brave choice. Red isn’t just warm, it’s hot! Volcanos, violence, war, heated passion, love. Both the devil and cupid – opposite emotions. It is so easy to flip from love to hate. And all represented by the color red.

Black is often used for elegant brands such as Louis Vuitton or Apple. One glaring exception to the refined civility of most brands that use black is Disney. We can’t imagine mouse ears in any other color. Even though real mice are actually an earthy tan.In Western culture we associate red most closely with anger, danger, passion and oddly importance (the red carpet).

Black absorbs all the colors in the visible light spectrum and often works well as lettering or borders to make other colors stand out.Chinese brides wear red as a symbol of prosperity and happiness and to attract good luck. While in South Africa, red is a color of mourning. It is also associated with communism, particularly when paired with yellow or orange.


Traditionally when we think of white, we think about weddings, purity, angels, cleanliness or peace. White can also be used to represent a clean slate or starting over. Medical professionals often use it to represent sterility. Because of that white can evoke feelings of isolation, loneliness and emptiness. It is also important to know that in India, white is traditionally worn by widows.

White is the reflection of all the colors in the visible light spectrum. This can cause other colors to vibrate against it. This vibration, or sense of movement where there is none, can be disconcerting at an unconscious level. Avoid using bright white alongside other bright colors. However, pairing it with black is a win if formality is your goal.


Grey leans towards the cool end of the neutral colors and can be seen as moody or depressing. If the goal is formality and professionalism, grey or silver can be a great choice. However, finding a true grey, a mixture of white and black only, can be tough. Many greys are made cooler or warmer with an undertone of blue, green or even purple.

Particularly when it comes to paint, be sure to compare your color choice in different lighting and next to any other colors you plan to use. You might be surprised how a color you thought was grey suddenly looks completely different and unappealing when the environment around it changes.

Final Thoughts

Understanding color theory can be overwhelming if art and design aren’t your area of expertise but it is also fascinating from a psychological standpoint. Discuss your brand goals with someone who understands and has not only a training in the theory but who has a background of actually making it work for their clients in real-world situations.

How your audience responds to how your brand uses colors can be the difference between generating leads and just having empty traffic.

If you’re ready to make color theory work for your brand, get in touch with Russ at and get on the path to creating successful branding.