First impressions are crucial to any design. Since they’re rarely forgotten - and you can only make one - it’s important to position your work in a way that will captivate your audience’s attention. Color, one of the most potent tools in a designer’s toolkit, is a great starting point for creating that lasting first impression.

Color can draw the eye, serve as a source of information, and influence emotions. In fact, according to a 2006 study, “people make up their minds within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with either people or products [and] about 62‐90 percent of the assessment is based on colors alone.” Because people can process visual information 60,000 times faster than plain text and 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, color can play an instrumental role in attracting more people to your brand and boosting conversion rates.

So now that we’ve established the importance of color, which ones should you be choosing for your designs? Muted colors are all the rage in today’s advertising world, but what about bold ones?

The Basics

To settle the debate between muted and bold colors, we’ll first need to define the two. A bold color is heavily saturated and bright, making it more striking in appearance. A muted one is simply greyed, dulled, or desaturated. You can mute a color by mixing it with black, white, gray, the complement of the color, or an earthy color, each of which will lead to desaturation. The result will be a softer color that is easier to work with.

Why Muted?

More recently, muted colors have emerged as some of the most prevalent in the design industry. As evidence, you need only sift through Pantone’s past colors of the year - Rose Quartz and Serenity in 2016, Greenery in 2017, and Ultimate Gray and Illuminating in 2021. From 2000 onward, there’s a clear move towards more subtle colors. This year’s ‘Illuminating’, for example, is not a highlighter yellow, nor the yellow of sci-fi, but more of a sunshiney glow indicative of a bright future.

The re-popularization of these colors has indeed made a big mark in our advertising world. They permeate our social media, billboards, fashion, movies. Companies like LinkedIn and ClassPass, amongst hundreds of others, have gone full steam ahead and embedded them in their core marketing strategies.

One of the reasons for this shift lies in the subtlety of these colors. Bold colors often fight for attention and detract from the overall design by overwhelming the onlooker. Think of the vivid Christmas green and red - they might be festive, but could you see yourself using them often? The thing about muted colors is that subtlety is everything, it gives the design meaning. The point is for the audience to feel comfortable observing the harmonious colors, much like you would with a saxophone playing during a jazz concert. Paired correctly, they heighten the audience’s experience and help them appreciate the individual components that bring the art together.

Muted colors also “allow designers to create depth within a page without breaking the rules of minimalist flat design. A muted blue on top of a deeper muted blue is easy on a user’s eye and can evoke a kind of hierarchy that indicates page depth without relying on shading”. This makes graphics appear more effortless and organic, while still generating interest.

Along with the shift towards muted palettes, there’s also been a longing for analog media - film photography, record players, arcade games. It’s no coincidence that the colors popping up now reflect this shift in aesthetic. “They feel like a direct throwback to the soft, low-fi photography of the seventies and even muted camcorder footage of the 1980s” when cameras were not able to capture highly saturated colors. Muted colors are back in style, but not out of necessity. Their warm, vintage tone is a push back from bold colors and a move towards what now represents efficiency and modernity. Ironically, they have become synonymous with relevancy. That, paired with the power of nostalgia, makes them potent colors indeed.

Why Bold?

Bold colors had a resurgence in popularity circa 2016, around the time when shows like Stranger Things brought vibrancy to the forefront of popular media. This allowed them to be accepted as professional colors that could be used across industries. Although that year Rose Quartz and Serenity took the Pantone crown, Pantone’s spring color trends were sprinkled with a line-up of strong colors.

While bold colors oftentimes get a negative reputation, they are not without perks. On an obvious note, they are useful for attracting the eye. They stand out in the visual plane, which is why animals of prey generally do not use them to camouflage themselves. This means that incorporating them into designs can make them more dramatic and impressive, leaving audiences feeling energized. Red, orange, pink, bright green, and others have become key colors in bringing designs to life and creating fun visuals. In particular, minimalistic designs with few images or elements can do well with playful color palettes.

It’s been well documented that the human brain reacts more intensely to bold colors. They are more easily noticed and remembered than muted colors, particularly when used on the right audience. This makes them emotional tools that are incredibly useful in emphasizing key content and boosting conversion rates. The color red, for example, "has the ability to evoke strong emotions and trigger a sense of expectation in the user”, making it an appealing color in sales.

Try Mixing Them Together

With all that being said, many designers opt out of using an ‘all in’ approach. They very cleverly mix small bursts of bold colors with an overall muted palette to achieve a happy medium. Although bold colors have their place, it is far more beneficial to use them sparingly. In doing so, they are more in control of where they guide their audience’s gaze and how they highlight the focal point.

An added benefit for this mixed approach is to increase legibility of the design. Because vibrant colors create contrast, this makes them easier to read, but too much contrast and they end up an eye sore. For this reason, it is often recommended that designers create a mild level of contrast by using bold colors only for the most important elements (eg. CTAs, updates, etc.).

Going into the new year you'll be seeing an influx of muted color palettes, so our go-to tip will be for you to do your research and figure out what blend works best for you and your brand. If you take this into consideration, you might just find the perfect recipe!

To get you started, here is our collection of free color palettes from popular designers!