Color Matters

By Lisa Woods

“Hot pink is the navy blue of India.”
–Diana Vreeland

Color is beautiful, but she is much more than mere decoration. Color communicates. If you treat her right, she can support and add impact to your book’s message. Treat her wrong, and she will undermine your message and confound your audience. Do not make the mistake of choosing a color scheme solely on personal preferences–color can profoundly influence the impression your book makes on potential buyers.

Color Wheels are Useless

Most of us learned a little color theory in school. Wavelength, primary and secondary, cool and warm, saturated or subdued. These terms are specific and informative, sure, but I’d guess they did little good when it came time to choose a wall color for your first home. Don’t let color theory convince you that there are absolutes and rules to which you must adhere. In the field of graphic design, confounding expectation is the best form of innovation. Color doesn’t fit purely in the realm of science or completely in the realm of art: She lives in the mysterious cultural territory between the two. To understand whether a color “works” or not, you must understand the emotion it evokes, its symbolism, and–most importantly–its context.

How Color Makes you Feel

Color affects us on a subconscious and emotional level. Certain colors have the ability to raise blood pressure, speed up breathing, and increase pulse rate and adrenaline. Our visceral reaction to various shades can even be measured by Galvanic skin response. Reds, oranges, and yellows have been shown to promote appetite, since they tend to be positively associated with food. Not coincidentally, most chain restaurants use these colors for their logos, signage, and décor. Greens have a calming effect, which is why concert halls and theaters have “green rooms” to relax performers before showtime. For a fun, animated look at mood and color, check out this site by graphic designer Maria Claudia Cortes.

More Than Meets the Eye

Colors also have symbolic meaning. Culturally-rooted color associations can vary widely from country to country, or even region to region. In American culture, white signifies the concepts of peace and purity. In China, however, white plays a very different role as the traditional color of mourning. We often don’t realize the deep messages basic colors communicate to us on a daily basis, and how much certain connections have been ingrained in us. Diana Vreeland, fashion columnist and longtime editor-in-chief of Vogue, is famous for noting that even the neutrality of colors is a cultural construct. And there are many distinct cultures–youth culture, corporate culture, gender culture, professional culture–each of which abides by its own constructed color symbolism. This table from Grantastic Designs illustrates the concepts colors convey in company websites and is a good example of how context can drastically alter a color’s meaning. (Not a lot of positive color associations in the medical field…)

Color Finance Engineering Medical
Red Loss Hot, Danger Danger, emergency OR healthy, oxygenated
Yellow Important, substantial Caution, warning Jaundice
Blue Reliable, corporate Water, cold, cool Death, Poison
Green Profit Safe, environmental Infection
Cyan Cool, subdued Steam Poison, lack of oxygen

So… What Color Should My Book Be?

When choosing a color scheme, you and your designer must consider the target audience of your book, the mood you want to evoke, and the symbols that best connect to your book’s content. Then capitalize on the power of color to send your audience cues about how perfect this book is for them. The covers below show how color, paired with compatible symbolism, serve as emotional triggers and help support a book’s primary message.

The Power of Nice by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval

Power of Nice.jpg

Target Audience: general business readers
Mood: happy
Symbolism: the happy face
Predominant Color Scheme: canary yellow

Dying Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me by William Hablitzel

Dying Was the Best Thing.jpg

Target Audience: self-help/inspirational, gender neutral
Mood: hopeful, peaceful, introspective, tranquil, spiritual
Symbolism: cycle of life, death and rebirth
Predominant Color Scheme: pale green and yellow

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Memory Keepers Daughter1.jpg

Target Audience: general fiction readers, predominantly female, parents of children with Down syndrome, book club members
Mood: somber, nostalgic, distant, detached
Symbolism: x-ray imagery, memory, regret
Predominant Color Scheme: black with ghostly blues

Fish! by Stephen C. Lundin


Target Audience: corporate managers, gender neutral
Mood: upbeat, fun, child-like, playful
Symbolism: childhood, simplicity, water
Predominant Color Scheme: white with bright orange, yellow, and blue

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