On a tiny screen, picking the right app icon colour is key

When your screen real-estate is fingerprint-sized, picking the right colour scheme is more important than ever

 
Teenager looking at a smartphone screen
(Mark Mawson/Getty)

Logo design is important for all new products, but it’s particularly crucial for apps, where you only have a square centimetre or less of “shelf space” in a digital storefront.

“The first impression is going to be that logo, so you want someone to feel attracted to it and feel compelled to download it,” says Alison Garnett, design director at Toronto’s SapientNitro agency. “The icon itself is the calling card. It’s the book cover.” Given the small size, colour is key.

“Most colours come with some baggage or some preconceived ideas,” says Bob Hambly, a partner at graphic design firm Hambly & Woolley. It’s not easy to lure someone toward a colour they detest or entice them away from one they love. But you can capitalize on the associations between hue and mood. Here’s a short guide to what, exactly, the colours of some of the most popular apps are saying:


Blue

blue-coloured app icons

Many of the older, more traditional app logos are blue—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype. It’s the most popular colour on earth, associated with peace, confidence, integrity. “Blue seems trustworthy. It feels very social; it’s that feel-good colour,” says Garnett. Blue is never a contentious choice—but its popularity means it won’t stand out in a crowd.

Orange

orange-coloured app icons

It may be one of graphic designers’ least favourite colours, but an orange wave is spreading across smartphone screens everywhere. “Orange is the new blue,” says Garnett. “It’s about wanting to stand out on the shelf.” Orange is friendly, fun, boisterous and eye-catching. But too much can be a dangerous thing; it’s often used as an accent rather than a core colour.

Yellow

yellow-coloured app icons

Hambly calls yellow the “colour that can’t make up its mind.” It’s sunny, happy, joyful and carefree, which is what Snapchat intends to evoke with its ghost logo. But it’s also associated with caution (think police tape and highway warning signs) and sickness: Flags on quarantined ships are yellow, while yellow fever is a deadly illness and yellow-bellied cowards are the worst kind. “It can mean happiness and joy, right through to the exact opposite,” says Hambly.

Red

red-coloured app icons

Red, like yellow, has multiple personalities. It’s bold and striking, making it a popular choice for signage around the world. It exudes excitement, passion and joy. It signifies romance and love. And red conjures up death, probably because it’s the colour of blood. “It’s a complicated colour,” says Hambly.

Green

green-coloured app icons

This colour is associated with nature, healing and life, but is now so closely connected with the environment that Hambly warns clients who want to use it that they had better really be “green,” or customers may feel misled. It’s also the colour of money, making it a common choice in financial sectors and for “utilitarian” apps like Messages, FaceTime and Evernote. “It’s your safe, ‘It’s going to do what you need it to do, but you’re not going to have a wild time’ colour,” says Garnett.

Purple

purple-coloured app icons

Purple has long been associated with royalty. Purple dye was originally created from mollusk shells, making it extraordinarily expensive. It was the colour of kings because only kings could afford it. The hue, however luxurious, is rare in app land. It’s associated with femininity, which detracts from its popularity, though it commonly evokes wisdom, spirituality and magic.

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