Unscrambling & Decoding the CMYK of healthcare

Unscrambling & Decoding the CMYK of healthcare

Leading paints brand Jotun has used social media to extract colour sensibilities from the behaviors of the society. They have extracted colour statistics from Pinterest, to aid their customers in selecting colours for different parts of their houses.

Colours evoke emotions. It is linked to psychological, physiological, and social reactions of human beings. Some of these are regional and some may be universal. For example, a universal interpretation of red is NO. Health and colour has been discussed great deal, more so when medicine brands need patent protection.

What evidence says?

The body of evidence regarding the connection between colour and health till date has been by far conflicting remains on untested grounds. Multiple users, cultures and the gravity of health issues seem to make a universal consensus a challenge.

Coalition for Health Environments Research (CHER) commissioned a review of existing research into the use of colour in healthcare environments1. The overall findings of this report say that there is not sufficient evidence to support direct linkages between particular colours and health outcomes of people. So there is no substantive evidence regarding the associations of health and colours. However that did not stop medicine marketers from owning categories based on colours. They used an existing understanding of colours affecting general human behavior and extrapolated that to health.

What common learning says?

A study of several literature pieces and practices has thrown open some substantive commonality in the use of colour:

Yellow is cheer and positivity. It is warm, inviting and uplifting. In the body it responds to chest, heart and lungs 2.

Orange is associated with joy. It is warm and the brighter hues may double up as red. It is associated with circulation and the nervous system. It also has a food, nutrition and vitamin association.


Red is the colour of energy, passion and dynamism. It can be intimidating in large expanses and attention catching on smaller ones. It is associated with heart, blood pressure. It may also be associated with spine and motor.


Green is aseptic. It is also the colour of fertility and balance. It is thought to be a master.


Blue is sad and calming at the same time. It is relaxing and is said to reverse agitation and restlessness. The Society of Critical Care Medicine recommends using calming colors that promote rest in critical care units3.


Violet is more spiritual. Purple or Violet in the body are associated with head, the nervous system and cerebral activity. That may have made it the choice for representing mental health and epilepsy worldwide.


Gentle and typically feminine and warm, pink is caring and affectionate. That may have made it the colour of breast cancer.


Gold is the hallmark of a therapy. The most potent drugs for a disease are defined as gold standard.

Strong solid colours may be associated with adults and geriatrics while soft pastels are child friendly.

How colour affects medication habits?

Two recent studies in Archives of Internal Medicine found that the color of a medication influences people’s perception about a medication, both before taking the medicine and staying with it. Colours like pink and orange are often associated with sweetness and chewable forms. So a pink coloured bitter tablet may be contrary to common expectations. Past experiences may also have fine-tuned certain expectations. A red colour anti-depressant is likely to be intimidating. Colour creates messages pre and during the use of medications. A grey coloured multivitamin is likely to be less attractive than a brightly coloured one. Can you imagine a fiery red antacid? On the other hand a red multivitamin would be most welcome. Consider, a purple pill in indigestion or constipation? May not work.

Colour builds adherence

The Archives of Internal Medicine study also found that differences in the color of prescribed medication affect whether a patient will stop taking a drug. It was reported that patients used to a certain colour familiarity are likely to stop taking the medicine, if the colour changes. Almost fifty percent are more likely to stop the intake of the drug. They found that when patients with epilepsy refilled their prescriptions and received a different color pill than they were used to, 53% were more likely to take a break from taking their drugs as prescribed. The color of a pill can create the opposite of the placebo effect. A change in the color of the pill deprives patients of their expectations of efficacy and may potentially have the opposite effect.

Colour offers trademark protection


Brufen is pink. Surbex red. Becosules the familiar orange and black. “Restyl small power is pink and higher power is blue” is how patients remember these medications. Globally, “The purple pill” is Nexium and the light blue angular pill, Viagra. The colour of the tablet also provides an intellectual property protection to brands. Sometimes the colour of the largest brand spills over to the category. A liquid antacid wanting to enter the Indian market may best be familiar if pink. Or decide to make a sensational entry with different colour story. While it sets a platform the generic entrants it’s a heart burn for the innovator.

Backed by evidence or no, colour was and is likely to fuel many branding wars in medicine.


1. https://www.healthdesign.org/sites/default/files/color_in_hc_environ.pdf
2. Tony Torres documents in his book In My Room that children with asthma and breathing problems react most favorably to yellow.
3. Fontaine et al., 2001).

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