Some very well-intentioned person on the bus the other day advised me green was an unlucky color for cars. I'm still wondering if she thinks it's a lucky color for Martians! I don't know if she's right or not (they do call unlucky cars lemons, not limes, after all), but I've been thinking lately about color and how it can work for or against your website efforts.

Color doesn’t simply look nice (or not). It speaks to the subconscious, evokes meanings and feelings and moods, and has an incredible ability to influence buying behavior. It’s a huge subject, and I was thinking about where to start this when a human here at the office dropped a copy of a perfect little starting-point article on my desk1. Read on and learn how to harness the power of the rainbow.

There are oodles of things I have to say about color (you guessed as much, right?), but I think it's best to start just like Dorothy did, at that first interior spiral-point on the Yellow Brick Road. Once you've begun the journey, you’ll see all the individual bits and pieces fall into place. Think of this as the basics that should go into planning the use of color on your website, even before you write your first line of html.

Right up front, remember that the way you use color when you design for e-commerce is very different from the way you'd use color if you were designing for a personal home page or pushing the outer edge of the avant-garde. As a business, you have some very real constraints to cope with: credibility, legibility, navigation, persuasion, down-load times, browser compatibility, and more. Ignore these, go wild with a cutting-edge design exercise, and you may delight a few design aficionados but you will probably alienate the vast majority your customers and prospects.

Alex Walker suggests you start the process of color design with words: take a piece of paper and write down adjectives you think describe the ambiance of your business. Think about your style, the feel you want to convey, the characteristics of your target audience, and pick all the words you can think of that apply. Now, from this list, select the Top Five - the best of the best. These are the words that will guide your imagery and selection of colors.

I once overheard a mom telling her child she seemed "very pink." We associate colors with moods, qualities and emotions. And that's where you want to go next in selecting your colors. What colors come to mind when you visualize your Top Five words? Deep greens? Rich tans? Soft blues? Urgent reds? Pick two or three, absolutely no more than four colors. I've seen super sites that simply rely on monotones! Fewer colors make for a stronger statement and tend not to over-stimulate or tax your viewers. In e-commerce, color is a clear case where less is often more.

Next, don't rely on color as the core of your design. Walker reminds us there are six basic and equally important elements that make up effective design: line, shape, value (lightness, darkness, shading), blank space, texture/pattern and color. An excellent way to see if your layout works well is actually to remove the color. If it looks good in black and white, then you've probably got a good design that can come alive with the judicious use of color.

Color can play other important roles, as well. It can help organize your site visually. It can draw your prospect’s eye toward the most important information on a page while it deemphasizes other information. It can help convey the structure of your navigation system. You can use it to color-code different features you offer or areas of your business. Color can highlight a special offer or a limited-time offer. The keys are to use it intelligently and intentionally.

So there you have it: what I consider the best information you can arm yourself with before you take your first step onto the Yellow Brick Road of e-commerce.

1. Define the mood of your business.

2. Select a limited palette of evocative colors.

3. Make color an integral element in a strong design.

4. Make color work for you in organizing your content.

That should get you started … and I'll catch you later, further down the cobblestones, with lots more thoughts on using color to nurture your prospect along the sales process toward that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the Close.

1. "4 Simple Steps to Coloring your WWWorld!" Alex Walker, SitePoint, 2/25/2001. <>.

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