Applying Color Theory to Colorado State University

CSU is a place to be proud of. How do we use color and its power to amplify CSU in our visual storytelling strategy?

Visual communication, whether it’s video, photos, or graphics, is a powerfully persuasive tool. Beneath the layers of visual media is a hidden, powerful force: color.

Before we get into this second dive of color, be sure to read my last post on color theory basics for video. I briefly touched upon the powerful psychological impact of color, and explored color theory and schemes.

Let’s take what we’ve learned so far and apply it to Colorado State University. CSU is a place to be proud of. How do we use color and its power to amplify CSU in our visual storytelling strategy?

Two areas where color can be applied are through brand colors and brand identity. CSU’s core brand colors are green and gold. Institutional brand identity, on the other hand, is currently in a process of rebirth. What character traits or ideals do we embody at CSU?

CSU recently collaborated with Carnegie Dartlett, a higher education marketing agency. Those conversations identified a key personality archetype for CSU: Innovator. The Innovator values newness, experimentation, and progress through innovation.

CSU is also considered as a leading research university, especially in fields like atmospheric science, infectious disease, clean energy, and environmental science. We’re a global leader in sustainability initiatives as well. Go us!

Applying color to archetypes 

So what color palette works best for the Innovator? What about science and research? Well, it depends on the emotional intent of the video. If the video’s intent is to bring about feelings of awe through stimulating themes like leadership and innovation, warmer colors may be effective. Warmer tones convey messages of energy and excitement. They’re “active” colors,  in other words, they’re stimulating. Warm colors range from shades of red to yellow.

If the video’s intent is to build trust or curiosity, cooler tones can help with that. Cool colors, like blue and green, can be calming and relaxing. These colors also create a sense of harmony. When your audience is relaxed, it’s easier to take in new ideas like scientific discoveries. Cool shades can work for showing off new technology or research projects.

Finding a balance

Finally, balance is key. Overpowering scenes with warm tones, especially if the saturation is cranked up, can feel chaotic and harsh. Dominating scenes with cooler tones, especially if the saturation is brought down, can convey feelings of sadness and isolation.

There’s an 80/20 rule and a 60-30-10 rule. If you’re focusing on warm colors, use 80% warm hues and 20% cool hues. The same goes for using cool hues.

The 60-30-10 rule is often used in graphic design. Let’s use a triadic color scheme as an example. We’ll go with red as the primary, yellow as the secondary, and blue as the accent. Red would make up 60% of the image, yellow at 30%, and blue at 10%.  You can make your own choices on what’s primary, secondary, or an accent. Just use one of the color schemes we’ve previously discussed.

CSU has a brand color guide that includes a comprehensive palette of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.  Of course, we typically use the primary colors of green, gold, and white. The image below shows our suggested ratio of colors found in the Ram’s head when designing assets for CSU. Green dominates while white is secondary. Gold serves as an accent color to provide additional depth. Following these proportions is a good starting point for a variety of palettes.  A graphic of the CSU Ram logo head next to a circular graph showing appropriate proportions between the color green, gold, and white.

Brand colors

Oftentimes, a company’s logo or brand colors transfer to their video content. For instance, Apple’s logo is often seen in neutral gray or silver. Their product videos have a color palette that is neutral, yet sleek and sophisticated. Target’s iconic bold, red brand color always makes a strong presence within their commercials.

Colorado State University’s colors, green and gold, always make their way into our visual content as well. With this in mind, acknowledging the colors’ symbolic meaning and their psychological impact can be very useful.

The color green represents balance, harmony, growth, nature, freshness, and healing. The color yellow brings feelings of warmth, creativity, joy, clarity, energy, and happiness. Yellow’s dazzling cousin, gold, conveys success, triumph, and abundance. The color orange shares similar meanings with yellow, from warmth to creativity. 

These meanings can all be tied back to themes around CSU’s personality. Innovation aligns with both creativity and success, feelings that are associated with warmer tones like orange and yellow. Sustainability is also associated with the color green. Green’s representation of harmony and growth can directly inform how you thematically plan content. As an example, a video showing how sustainability contributes to a thriving, harmonious campus can be magnified alongside the color green. 

Finally, experiment with color schemes revolving around green and yellow. Explore different shades of each or their nearby colors on the color wheel. Find and use their complementary colors for contrast, which lay on the opposite end of the color wheel. For yellow, that’s purple, and for green, that’s red. 

Final thoughts 

One of the important things to keep in mind is most of our content is not experimental or narrative film. Therefore,  it’s unlikely that we’d ever color grade our content in a way that’s unrealistic or surreal.

Always ensure that skin tones stay natural. It’s good to tweak colors a bit so it has more of a cinematic touch, but most of our content isn’t too far of a stretch from true colors. This is especially paramount with skin color.

Finally, always balance colors with neutral colors. These include blacks, whites, grays and browns. The more colors you modify or work with, the more difficult it is to make them work together.  Be picky about your palette. Don’t bump up the saturation for all the colors in your scene. Not every color needs to be a star. Only one or two should stand out, while the rest support that color and give it rhythm in the background. A color’s lightness, or luminance, can be more important than the color itself. There needs to be contrast between both colors (like complementary colors) and luminance. Deep shadows and brilliant highlights (without overexposure) is an example of contrast with luminance.

Find a look that works for most projects and stick to it. Consider our brand identity (archetypes and colors) and the emotional intent of your video, photo, or graphic when working with colors.  Color is one subtle detail you never want to underestimate.