Pantone colour of the year - the story of strength and hope for 2021

Pantone Colour of the Year 2021 was announced last last month, and as usual the story behind the chosen colours is as fascinating as ever. 

Pantone has selected two colours: a bright yellow, called Illuminating and Ultimate Grey.

The choices represent a positive and forward looking response to recent global events and in our view are more about encapsulating the emotions of society at the current time, than they are about trends in design, art and culture. 

This is summed up nicely by Leatrice Eiseman, Executive Director at Pantone who describes “the union of enduring Ultimate Grey with the vibrant yellow Illuminating as a message of positivity supported by fortitude” that “gives us resilience and hope“. 

It’s not the first time Pantone has made a social statement with their selection and chosen a colour to represent an emotion, you can read about its choices from the last two decades here.

In a similar vein, Dulux announced Brave Ground as its colour of the year; a colour that evokes the natural, earthy elements around us.

We all know that colour can be hugely evocative but it’s the psychological effects that colour can have that really interests us from a behavioural science perspective.

The psychology of colour

Lots of studies have looked at the influence colour has on the human brain, all of which reach a similar conclusion; that our feelings and reactions towards colour are often unconscious.

As creatives there’s a variety of reasons why we might choose one colour over another in the creative work we do for our clients – especially because we’re always trying to influence behaviour in some way.

There are certain rules we might follow though – red is synonymous with ‘sale’, orange tends to indicate ‘value’ and so on. But if we rely on picking from the same toolbox of colours for every task, the effectiveness of what we create gets diminished. 

Here’s some of the psychology behind Pantone’s colour of the year 2021.


Yellow is the colour most visible to the eye. It’s why it’s so frequently used on signs and in promotional material as a way to ‘stop the scroll’. 

According to Leatrice Eiseman at Pantone, “yellow is thought of as joyful, outgoing, open, and friendly. Psychologically, yellow is the strongest colour. It is associated with comedy, a happy mood, and playfulness. Yellow ribbons have been used as a sign of hope and optimism since the nineteenth century.”


Grey is often associated with low mood and depression. But being the colour between black and white, it’s also associated with neutrality and balance. You’ll see a lot of brands make use of grey, as it’s a standard, non-offensive shade. It’s usually the colour used to balance a brighter, statement colour.  As it’s the colour of concrete, steel and other industrial materials, it evokes strength and resilience. 

Putting colour in context – the science bit

In 2012, Elliot and Maier created their ‘colour-in-context theory’, which drew from social learning and biology.

In short, they learned that our response to a specific colour is based on a repeated pairing of that colour with personal experiences. For example, bright yellow sunshine is warm and inviting, and grey clouds are cold, rain-filled and moody.

This is all very well, but how what does it mean for brands and marketers?

What does your brand colour make people think when they see your advertising, website or store?

What does colour psychology tell us about about how to optimise campaigns?

Brand personality and colour

Your brand has its own personality and customers will often seek out products that have a personality that matches their own. So it’s incredibly important to truly understand your brand’s personality and ask yourself, does its colour live up to it?

These questions are good starting point for establishing your brands personality.

Gender: Is my brand traditionally masculine or feminine?

Tone: Is my brand playful or serious?

Value: Is my brand luxurious or affordable?

Time: Is my brand modern or classic?

Age: Is my brand youthful or mature?

Energy: Is my brand loud or subdued?

Colour and emotion

If you have an established brand colour, does your brand illicit these emotions in your customers?

Or, consider how to optimise future campaigns using this colour/emotion guide:

Red – Excitement, youthful, bold.

Orange – Friendly, cheerful, confident.

Purple – Creative, imaginative, wise.

Blue – Trust, dependable, strong.

Green – Peaceful, growth, health.

Want to start applying behavioural-led creativity?

As a creative agency that uses behavioural science to make marketing more effective, our team of behavioural designers apply a deep understanding of the meaning behind colour to develop work that is more compelling and impactful.

We deliver everything from insights and strategy development for brand building or big ideas right down to tactical campaigns and execution.

If you’d like to find out more about how we can help you to apply behavioural science creatively then please get in touch.

How we've used colour psychology in our work


When we re-branded Housing Units, one of the brand heuristics (or shortcuts) that we retained was its well known green colour. At the time the green in use was bright and garish and it was paired with an equally bright shade of yellow, that was supposed to be imitating gold. We updated the green to a rich, contemporary green that presents a confident tone and instils quality. We decided to lose the bright yellow completely, as the green was the colour synonymous with the brand.



Our approach to the rebranding of GreenThumb was similar to that of Housing Units (left). In lawn care, the colour green is an industry convention and one that GreenThumb was keen to retain. Our approach to evolving the brand identity meant giving the green more meaning and providing a supporting colour to accompany it. We did this by creating Lush Green – a cool colour that symbolises nature, tranquility and health, and Passion Red – a bright warm colour that evokes strong memories of love warmth and comfort. Together they are the epitome of Lawn Love.



To help keep the first wave of transmission rates of COVID-19 under control and support retailers, we created a suite of behavioural-led posters to encourage people to act safely in-store. We designed the posters in yellow and black. Yellow because of its authority, ability to attract attention and it signifies caution. Black thanks to its power, authority and seriousness. This combination ensured the messages be communicated had the best chance of influencing behaviour. 


Yellow brands - what do they mean?

Brands across various categories use yellow to influence audience behaviour in different ways.


JCB machines are typically yellow in colour. This is mainly for safety reasons to ensure they stand out on building sites and quarries. This use of yellow translates across their brand and in their tools and accessories ensuring their products are instantly recognisable. 

Veuve Clicquot

Premium champagne manufacturer, Veuve Clicquot, uses yellow to differentiate within its category. Where other champagne brands tend to use muted and premium colours, the bold use of yellow reinforces the brand’s heritage and innovation. 


IKEA’s use of yellow and blue are influenced by the colours of the Swedish national flag. The yellow represents optimism and the abundance of the brand.