How to Use Color Theory in Food Service

The use of color plays a major role in how we perceive our food. After all, you’ve probably heard that red makes people feel hungrier, but what about the other colors of the rainbow? And how do they make people feel and could it make sense for you to use them? We call the use of colors to create certain effects color theory. Knowing which colors to use in food service can help you create a better experience for your customers and even sell more food.

How Color Affects Us

Before we get in depth about how colors impact us, it’s best to start with a review of what color is. And there’s no better place to start than the kings of color—Crayola and Sir Isaac Newton.

During the early and middle 1600s, people believed that different colors came from adding black to white light. Newton disproved that mindset with his book New Theory of Light and Colors and his experiments refracting light through prisms. Newton demonstrated two important concepts. First, he used a prism to show that white is comprised of all the other colors. Second, he showed that light revealed color but did not create it.

“When light shines on an object some colors bounce off the object and others are absorbed by it” Crayola says on its website for educators. “Our eyes only see the colors that are bounced off or reflected.” So, when you look at a red apple, what you see is red light reflecting off the apple. The apple itself doesn’t contain the color red, it just reflects red light and absorbs other colors from the light.

Meanwhile, white and black work a little bit differently. The basic concept of light revealing colors stands, but white is comprised of all colors while black is comprised of no color. So, when you see a white object, such as a sheet of white office paper, it’s reflecting every color in the light that’s shining on it. And when you see a black object, it’s reflecting none of the colors from that light source back at you.

There are also other forms of light that we can’t see with our eyes—including ultraviolet light, x-rays, infrared, and microwaves.

What Is Color Theory

Ultimately, color theory boils down to how we use and perceive colors, and it’s a mix of both art and science.

Science tells us that our relationships with color are both personal and cultural. In other words, our own histories and the culture we live in influences how we perceive colors and what those colors mean to us. For instance, in Western cultures brides wear white to their wedding—a symbol of purity and innocence. However, in India, many brides’ dresses are red as red symbolizes passion, prosperity, and new beginnings to Indians.

The artistic side of color theory tells us how to use color to influence viewers. Before your customer reads words on the menu or can make out the images, they notice the colors on it. Color is one of the first elements that your customer perceives. Color theory takes those personal, cultural symbols and uses them to:

  • Make a message more persuasive
  • Make ads more memorable
  • Reinforce a perception of sustainability
  • Make food look tastier
  • Ultimately, to sell more products

How to Use Colors in Design and Marketing

Now that you know what color theory is, the question becomes “how can I use it?”.

Whenever you’re picking a name for your company, you want to pick a name that conveys what you’re all about. You also want to make sure you search around for similarly named businesses. Not only are you looking to avoid using someone else’s name, you want to make sure yours isn’t too similar to someone else’s business. The same principles apply with color.

The colors you choose and how they’re used are as much a part of your brand as your business’s name. In fact, your customers probably perceive your color scheme before they begin to process your name. If you want to convey that your restaurant is a fun and happy place to eat, you’ll want to use colors associated with joy and energy, such as orange and yellow and avoid colors that symbolize calm, such as blue.

You also can use colors to tap into your customers’ subconscious. Red, for instance, often symbolizes excitement, passion, or power, and is used to make a product seem more exciting. It’s also a color of danger, which is why so many hot sauce brands use red to make their product appear dangerous and exciting at the same time.

Sometimes it’s a balancing act. You want to avoid looking like your competitors, but you also want colors that convey what you sell. If you sell organic or sustainable products, you’ll probably want to use colors associated with nature, like blue, brown, and green. Because everyone else who sells eco-friendly products also does this, you’ll have to make sure you use them in unique ways that help you stand out.

Achieving Harmony—and Other Color Effects

You can also use colors to achieve different visual effects.

Using analogous colors (colors next to each other on the color wheel) can create a wide variety of effects, depending on the colors chosen. Blue, blue green, and green schemes, for instance, can be calming. On the other hand, yellow, yellow green, and green will create a sense of nature and vibrancy.

Complementary color schemes pair two colors from opposite ends of the color wheel. The red and green of Christmas, for instance, is a complementary color scheme. This kind of color pairing is effective at generating high contrast and standing out.

Color Mistakes to Avoid

Generally, don’t combine bright, neon colors. Having more than one of them creates a clash and hurts viewers eyes. Aside from the discomfort of looking at two extremely bright colors, viewers attention will be split between the two colors. The purpose of a good design is to communicate a message to your viewers and having colors clash conflicts with your intended message.

Similarly, avoid using two dark colors together. They can make it hard to show what it is you want to highlight while also sending a depressing or chilling message.

Avoid mixing warm colors with cool colors. That, too, can cause a clash for viewers eyes.

Outside of clashes, you want to avoid using colors that are too similar. White and silver, for instance, are too hard to make out without the aid of other colors.

You should also avoid using Pantone 448 C, a dark brown. Why? In 2012, it was chosen as the color for tobacco and cigarette packaging in Australia because researchers determined is the ugliest color they could find.

For a funny look through other bad color combos, check out “Color Combinations from Hell – Death Sentence for Your Designs.”

Examples of Color Use in Foodservice

If you want some ideas for how you might use color theory in your own marketing, look around you. Go to restaurants and grocery stores and try to reverse engineer the choices that those businesses made about their stores and their products.

Consider, for instance, how Beyond Meat calls their plant-based foods “meat,” places them in meat sections of stores, and predominately uses ALL CAPS in their marketing. Not only do they view their competition as meat products, but they’re also want to advertise loudly to meat buyers.

Or, look at the iconic design of Campbell’s Soup. The clean, red and white design was adopted in 1898 (they were originally orange and blue) and was modeled after Cornell’s red and white football uniforms. The dividing line between the two colors draws attention to the medallion, which represents the bronze medal for product excellence the company won at the Paris Exposition in 1900. In this case, the history of the design—relatively constant for more than 120 years—also creates a sense of stability.

So Which Colors Should I Use?

That’s up to you, and the effect you want to create. To help you decide that, here’s a list of colors and the effects they’re known to create.

  • Red: excitement, power, hunger, passion
  • Purple: wisdom, spirituality, royalty, creativity
  • Pink: calm, femininity, romance, sweetness, soft, nurturing
  • Blue: security, trust, calm, peace; be cautious with blue—some research suggests that blue suppresses appetites
  • Green: nature, sustainability, abundance, growth, tranquility
  • Yellow: happiness, vibrancy, nature, sunshine
  • Orange: energy, optimism, fun, health
  • Brown: reliable, natural, wholesome, inexpensive, comfort, solid
  • Black: power, elegance, formality, authority, cold
  • Grey: maturity, reliability, solidarity, formality, controlled
  • White: innocence, hope, purity, clarity, minimalism, simplicity

Regardless of the colors you use, it’s important to make sure your color use and the other elements of your design are part of a consistent brand. The colors you choose and how you use them are all part of the message you send to your customers. Do you know what message you’re sending to your customers? Is it the message you want to send?