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Itten, colour theory and brand identity

Color is life; for a world without color appears to us as dead… Colors are the children of light, and light of their mother”. So said Johannes Itten, a top colour theorist and artist belonging to the famous Bauhaus movement. Together with Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Josef Albers he helped form much of what we understand today as colour theory.

Born in 1888, Itten taught foundation courses at the Bauhaus from 1919 until 1922 and was the first to make the link between colours and emotions as well as the impact of colours to our mood. He was also the one to designate colours into warm and cold, something that is still widely used today. So every time you think about a certain Farrow & Ball paint being "cold" for a north-facing room, think of Itten.

Although he did not come up with the idea of the colour wheel (we have Isaac Newton to thank for this, some 300 years earlier), he still worked a lot on modifying it. Deeply influenced by his contemporary Johann Goethe, he invested a lot of his time on the psychological attributes of colours.

Interestingly, he used to test which were his students' favourite colours which he called 'subjective' and tried to identify links between those and the students' vocation later on. Let's see an example.

It is said that Marcel Breuer, a student of Itten, showed preference to light violet, light blue, blue-gray, yellow, white and a touch of black as colours. Itten told him that he had a natural affinity to working with metals and glass. Breuer was not convinced at the time (he said he much preferred working with wood), but he was later on the one who designed the first modern steel chair (the Wassily chair).

Going back to the colour wheel, Itten divided it onto WARM and COOL colours. From the graph below it is obvious that warm colours are based on yellow whereas cool colours are blue based.

Then he moved on to hue, intensity (saturation) and value (how light or dark each colour is). In the example below, I am playing with my phone's colour saturation on this photo (which coincidentally is from Jessica Zoob's launch party a few weeks ago - Jessica is a fantastic abstract artist which you need to get to know so please check her out). But to my point: all of you VSCO app lovers have Mr Itten to thank for filters in photography.

Itten then divided colours into groups and assigned them a season. As you would expect, the characteristics of each seasonal group really matched the attributes of that season. For example, the Spring palette would include 'luminous' colours - those with yellow undertones. And this brings us to (yes, finally I am making my point - I am a lawyer by trade, did you really expect this to be short!?) use of colour in brand identity.

Starting out with brand identity

So, much of Itten's colour theory is nowadays used in brand identity. If you have read Fiona Humberstone's HOW TO STYLE YOUR BRAND, you probably know how passionate she is about colour psychology in branding.

"Colour works at a subconscious level, faster than words or images, and creates a gut response. By understanding how colour psychology works you can style a brand identity that feels as good as it looks."

Fiona Humberstone, How to Style your Brand

Based on Itten's seasonal colour theory, Fiona (and many other well known brand identity strategists) advises those who are starting out in branding to first identify the 'season' that their business falls in. You should only try to follow the colours of one season, although you can have a second "subordinate" one.

How to find out the right "season" for you? Fiona has lists of seasonal 'keywords' in her first book and invites you to look at them and pick your top three that best represent you. For example under winter she has (and I am giving you a very small sample compared to what you will find in her book, so go check it out!): "dramatic, expert, luxurious, self assured"; or under Spring you may find: "clear, creative, informal, spontaneous". Of course once you have honed in on the season, you can start playing with colours that are relevant to it. And start building your brand around them.

Just like brand stylists, interior designers and architects too work with clients to understand the message they want to enhance, their core values in a sense, before making recommendations not just for the actual colours but also for materials to be used (think of lacquer for example, with its reflective value, compared to matt felt which totally absorbs light). And all that to enhance brand identity.

Colour Theory Workshop

During a Disegno workshop hosted by Italian furniture firm ARPER in their Bloggers Lounge for Clerkenwell Design Week, I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by acclaimed architect and designer Ab Rogers whose studio has worked with museums, fashion designers as well private clients.

Working on Itten's theory on the subjectivity of colours, Ab Rogers put a number of interiors bloggers to the task of coming up with a colour wheel (or mood board) to represent our favourite (subjective) colours. All in 30 minutes or less. It felt a lot less. I was stressed. How can you come up with a mood board in 30 minutes!

Photo: @Thomas Brooker. Colour theory for dummies (us basically). Ab Rogers presenting.

The task was fun. And following that, Ab Rogers decided to analyse our work, which was scary and fascinating at the same time. The first thing he said for my work was "Controlled". I pretended to be surprised, although I knew that already. Which is also unexpected as I am sometimes not very organised and the office (and home in general) is A MESS. But hey!

Photos: @Seasons in Colour

Colour psychology and branding

Back to brand identity though. This is something I have personally struggled with on my own blog and I know that a lot of you feel the same. I certainly feel that I am not sending clear messages to my readers at times and that's because I am still experimenting with graphics, fonts and layouts (and I have to admit that I rather enjoy this creative process, maybe a little too much, which is why I am taking my sweet time about it!).

I am utterly inspired by those bloggers (and brands) that have this figured out and send a consistent message and style that you can recognised from a mile away across ALL their social media. Let's see if you can figure out who this is?

Yes, none other than OH JOY, who started as a DIY blogger and now works regularly with Target. Joy's brand is all about SPRING colours: fresh, creative, friendly, fun, informal, optimistic, youthful, positive. All photos by Joy Cho. Now how about this one:

So this one is Swoonworthy (Kimberly Duran), another favourite interiors blog that is all about glam boho. Kimberly's style is eclectic, sexy, dramatic, opulent, strong. She is a classic Winter type I think! All photos by Kimberly Duran.

I will be writing more about colour psychology in the coming weeks and link it to branding too, especially as I will record my journey into re-branding the website. But for now, I leave you with a very basic question: do you know WHICH season you are in terms of colours? Drop me a message below!


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