The Meaning of Colours

For most of us, a rainbow of colours envelopes our lives. Over 80% of visual information is related to colour.¹ What colours and combinations of colours stimulate people to be interested in different things? What colours make us feel pleasure or disapproval, hot or cold, to be attracted or repelled, our appetite stimulated or suppressed?

Many reactions to colour are instinctual, universal and cross cultural boundaries. "Colors also convey messages that go beyond ethnic, racial, or gender boundaries. According to a 1997 survey by Cooper Marketing Group, Oak Park, IL, power is represented by the color scarlet red for 25% of respondents, black for 17% and bright violet blue for 13%. More than 55% of those surveyed chose one of these three colors out of 100 colors. Fragility was most represented by pale pink (27%), white (9%), and pale lavender (9%)."²

Other associations with colours are specific to a culture or regions. Mixing appropriate amounts of different colours however can neutralise inherent negative cultural connotations.

Web design which achieves successful marketing results is sensitive to the cultural, instinctual and iconic meanings of colour in relation to the product being promoted and considers the cultural backgrounds and gender of the targeted clientele. Avoiding the extremes of sheer garishness and boredom, effective design displays symphonic colour arrangements of shades, tints, tones and complementarities to tantalise and maintain interest. Adding textures too can alter colours - a roughly textured surface makes a colour seem darker, while a smooth surface lightens the same colour.

Colour trends may defy instinctual, cultural and iconic constraints - for example, the recent craze for vivid lime green. As Jill Morton says: "Psychologically, the 'anti-aesthetic' colors may well capture more attention than those on the aesthetically-correct list. History clearly demonstrates that this has been a prevalent trend in art since the turn of the 20th century, when Dada's urinals and snow shovels put an end to the era of Matisse and French Impressionism."³

Red

European : Danger (stop signs), love (hearts), excitement (for sale signs)

China : Traditional bridal colour, good luck, celebration, happiness, joy, vitality, long life, summoning, the direction South. Chinese saying goes "when something is so red, it is purple" - red purple brings luck and fame.

Japan : life

India : Purity

Eastern : Joy (with white)

Hebrew : sacrifice, sin

Christian : sacrifice, passion, love

USA : Christmas (with green), Valentine's day (with white)

South Africa : Mourning

Australian aboriginals : the land, earth, ceremonial ochre

Cherokees : success

Hopi : the direction South

Romans : Red flag signified the onset of battle

Celtic : Death, afterlife

Feng Shui : Yang, Fire, good luck, money, respect, recognition, protection, vitality

Red : Energy, strength, passion, eroticism, cheerfulness, courage, element of fire, career goals, fast action, lust, desire, blood, vibrancy, driving forces, risk, fame, love, survival, war, revolution, danger, aggression, strength, power, determination, emotional intensity, sex, provoking, dynamic, stimulating, courage, bravery, good-tasting, force, leadership, drama, excitement, speed, heat, warmth, violence, attention, generosity, romance

Red stimulates metabolism, increases respiration rate, perspiration, appetite and raises blood pressure. Red is a strong masculine colour.

Red tends to promote images and text, making objects appear larger and closer, though less than yellow coloured objects. Bright red can be annoying if used over large areas and is useful as a iconic colour to encourage people to act quickly eg. on buy or click here buttons. An apetite stimulant, red is useful for promoting products associated with energy ... drinks, cars, sports and games.

Care is need using red in proximity with green ... as the old adage goes: 'Red and green should not be seen without something in between'.

Mixing bright blue and bright red is also not recommended ... the combination is very tiring on the eye.

Light red : joy, sexuality, passion, sensitivity, love, indecision

Dark red : willpower, rage, wrath, tenseness, vigour, anger, leadership, courage, yearning, malice, wrath

Maroon : Yang, indecisiveness

 

Pink

European : Feminine colour, baby girls

East India : Feminine colour

Japan : Popular with both sexes

Korea : trust

Feng Shui : Yin, love

Pink : Romance, love, friendship, femininity, truth, passivity, good will, emotional healing, peace, calming, affection, emotional maturity, caring, nurturing, sweet tasting, sweet smelling, ethereal, delicacy.

Pale pink : sweetness of youth, fragility

Vibrant pinks : high spirits, energy, youth

 

Orange

European : Autumn, creativity, harvest

Netherlands : Favourite colour (House of Orange)

Ireland : Protestants

USA : Halloween, cheap goods

Hinduism : Saffron (peachy orange) is a sacred color

Feng Shui : Yang, Earth, strengthens concentration, purpose, organization

Orange : warmth, energy, balance, enthusiasm, vibrancy, vitality, expansiveness, flamboyance, excitement, business goals, property deals, ambition, career, goals, general success, justice, legal matters, selling, action, attention-grabbing, the sun, friendly, inviting, intense, joy, strength, endurance, steadfastness, tropics, quick movement, wealth of the mind and knowledge, charity, growing things, fascination, friendliness, happiness, beginnings, heat, creativity, autumn, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, courage, earth, mental and appetite stimulatant, emotional lift, assurance, social force, health, warmth, attractiveness, cheerfulness, mood-lightening, uninhibited, independence, amiability, constructiveness, self-assuredness, cheap, low-budget, fun kids colour, youth

In restaurants, as orange is an appetite stimulant, orange decor encourages sales. Less passionate than red, orange still increases oxygen supply to the brain, stimulating mental activity. Popular amongst youth.

Orange backgrounds help images seem closer and larger, but avoid over-use. Useful for highlighting important elements, promoting food products and toys.

"As we turned our sights to orange, substantial research (including the data gathered at The Global Color Survey at www.colormatters.com and the Pantone Consumer Color Preference Study® dated June 1996) documented that orange is one of Americans' least favorite colors. ... In 1991, Forbes called attention to orange's mundane associations in its December 23 article, 'Does orange mean cheap?' Yes, it does."4

Dark orange : autumn, deceit, distrust

Red orange : desire, sexuality, pleasure, domination, aggression, thirst for action

Bright orange : tangy citrus, health

Pale orange : apricot, coral, peach and melon are sophisticated

 

Brown

Colombia : discourages sales

Australian Aboriginals : colour of the land, ceremonial ochre

Feng Shui : Yang, Earth, industry, grounded

Brown : friendships, special events, earth, materialistic thoughts, hearth, home, outdoors, inexpensive, reliability, credibility, comfort, endurance, stability, simplicity, comfort, longevity, intimacy, tranquility, masculine, nurturing, contentment, strength, sensuality, productivity, passivity, fertility, generosity, dirt, substance, practicality, hard work

Brown is too low key if used broadly without texture or another color to enhance it. Useful for promoting food and outdoor products for work and play.

Reddish-brown : harvest, autumn

Beiges and tans : Yang, sophistication, neatness, conceals emotion

Copper : passion, money goals, professional growth, business productivity, career moves

Coffee browns : sophistication, richness, robustness, panache

 

Gold

World-wide : Success, high quality, money

Feng Shui : Yang, Metal, God consciousness

Gold : wealth, god, winning, safety, masculine power, happiness, playful humour, prestige, wisdom, love of spirit, meaning, purpose, awe, spiritual love, quests of the heart, desire for power, mystic powers, higher mathematics, sciences, attainment, concentration.

Gold and navy (credibility) are the best combination for selling to men and the second best for selling to women.

 

Yellow

European : Hope, joy, happiness, hazards, cowardice, weakness, taxis

Asia : sacred, imperial

China : Nourishing, royalty

Egypt : Mourning

Japan : Courage

India : Merchants

Buddhism : wisdom

Feng Shui : Yang, Earth, auspicious, sunbeams, warmth, motion

Yellow : sun, intelligence, light, accelerated learning, memory, logical imagination, social energy, cooperation, organisation, breaking mental blocks, sunshine, joy, happiness, intellect, energy, cheerfulness, optimism, purity, enthusiasm, warmth, honour, loyalty, mental force, clarity, perception, understanding, wisdom, dishonesty, betrayal, jealousy, covetousness, deceit, disease, weakness, caution, cowardice, follower, curiosity, mellowness, confidence, humour, dreams, creativity, desire to improve, action, idealism, optimism, imagination, hope, summer, philosophy, uncertainty, restlessness, glory, enlightenment

Yellow stimulates mental activity, generates muscle energy and attracts attention - it is the colour most visible to the human eye. Thus yellow objects move to the forefront. Students who study in yellow rooms do better in exams. Cheerful yellow can be used to promote food especially in combination with other fruit and vegetable tones, children's and leisure products and is best used as a highlight. With overuse, yellow can be disturbing and promote anxiety. Babies cry more in yellow rooms. Yellow against black denotes a warning ... the sting of the bee.

Yellow is not a practical colour to use when selling expensive items to men ... they perceive it as an untrustworthy and childish ... and avoid yellow if you wish to evoke safety and stability. Care is needed with shades of yellow as they can lose their warmth and appear dirty.

Dull yellow : caution, decay, sickness, jealousym aging

Light yellow : intellect, freshness, and joy

Ivory/cream : quiet, pleasantness, calm, understated elegance, purity, softness, more rich and warm than white

 

Green

China : Exorcism, green hats indicate a man's wife is cheating on him.

Japan : Life.

Islam : Hope - the cloak of the prophet was thought to be green, virtue - only those of perfect faith can wear green.

Ireland: Symbol of the entire country, Catholics

European/USA : Spring, new birth, go, safe, environmental awareness, Saint Patrick's Day, Christmas (with red)

USA : Money

Feng Shui : Yin, Wood, growing energy, refreshing, nurturing, balancing, harmony normalising, healing, health, peaceful, calming

Green : earth mother, physical healing, monetary success, abundance, fertility, tree & plant magic, growth, food, hope, personal goals, resurrection, renewal, youth, stability, endurance, freshness, nature, environment, tranquil, refreshing, quiet, hope, immortality, health, healing, good luck, renewal, youth, jealousy, inexperience, trees, grass, vigour, growth, harmony, responsiveness, generosity, safety, envy, misfortune, quietude, compassion, renewal, moderation, nurturing, diplomacy, calm, contemplation, joy, love, abundance, balance, self-control, inexperience, hope, good omens, soothing, sharing, dependability, friendliness

Green lowers blood pressure, relaxes the nervous system, calms and soothes the mind, stimulates creativity, and is an appetite suppressant. Green is easy on the eye and can improve vision. Images set in green backgrounds seem farther away. Green is popular in most cultures.

Useful as a marketing colour for organic, healthy and natural 'green' products.

Dark green : money, ambition, greed, jealousy, heaviness, prestige, promotes concentration

Yellow-green/lime green : sickness, cowardice, discord, and jealousy, nausea - don't use this colour for promoting food products as it's an appetite depressant.

Olive green : peace

Avocado : 60s and 70s refridgerators

Blue greens : most accepted colour group across gender lines

 

Turquoise

Ancient Persians : warding off evil eye

Turquoise : calming, emotional healing, protection, refreshing, sophisticated

Turquoise is equally popular with men and women. Mixes well with pale pinks and lavenders for a feminine look. Create a retro scenario with turquoise and pink or art deco by combining it with white and black. Combined with grey, silver, terra cotta and tans, it produces a southwestern USA look. With orange or yellow, it creates an innovative, fresh image suitable for sports-oriented sites.5

Light Turquoise : feminine

Teal : sophisticated

 

Blue

European : soothing, "something blue" bridal tradition

Cherokees : defeat, trouble

Iran : mourning

China : immortality

Colombia : soap

Hinduism : the colour of Krishna

Judaism : holiness

Christianity : Christ's colour

Catholicism : colour of Mary's robe

Middle East : protection

Worldwide : 'safe' colour

Feng Shui : Yin, Water, calm, love, healing, relaxation, peace, trust, adventure, exploration

Blue : good fortune, communication, wisdom, protection, spiritual inspiration, calmness, reassurance, gentleness, fluidity, water, sea, creativity, peace, calming, higher thoughts, mystery, sky, formality, travel, devotion, progress, quiet wisdom, freedom. betterment of humanity, love, trust, loyalty, intelligence, reassurance, artistry, compassion, inner strength, devotion, depression, sadness, tranquility, stability, unity, truth, understanding, confidence, acceptance, conservatism, security, cleanliness, order, comfort, cold, technology, devotion, harmony, depth, faith, heaven, piety, sincerity, precision, intellect, sadness, consciousness, speech, messages, ideas, sharing, cooperation, idealism, sincerity, empathy, relaxation, affection, inspiration, friendship, patience, contemplation, infinity, harmony, non-threatening, dependability

Some believe blue slows the metabolism and suppresses the appetite. As it does not require the eye to focus, images and objects recede in blue backgrounds. With overuse, can create feelings of cold. Although also popular with women, blue is the predominant favourite colour of males and is suited to web sites involving and promoting technology, medical products, cleanliness, air, sky, water, sea and automotives. Blue is the favourite colour of more than half of the world's people - it is the colour least disliked by most cultures.

High impact designs can be created with combinations of blue, red and yellow. Combinations of light and dark blues can create feelings of trust. Pale Blue : ethereal, delicate, calming, health, healing, tranquility, understanding, softness

In combination with pinks and pale yellows, creates the image of spring. Aqua : freshness, pristine, vigour, movement, dramatic, confidence, strength, individualism, eccentricity, humour, fearlessness, festivity

Royal Blue : richness, superiority, cold Dark blue : depth, expertise, stability, credibility (especially with gold), intellect, wisdom, corporate colour, warmth, knowledge, power, integrity, seriousness, knowledge, health, decisiveness, law, order, logic, dependability, serenity

Combining dark and lighter shades of blue creates a conservative and sophisticated look.

 

Purple

Thailand : Mourning

European : Royalty

Catholicism : Mourning, death, crucifixion

Feng Shui : Yin, spiritual awareness, physical and mental healing

Purple : influence, third eye, psychic ability, spiritual power, self assurance, hidden knowledge, dignity, high aspirations, royalty, spirituality, nobility, ceremony, mystery, transformation, wisdom, enlightenment, sophistication, cruelty, arrogance, intuition, dreams, unconscious, invisible, telepathy, empathy, imagination, deja vu, universal spirit, spiritual connection, deeper truth, nobility, wealth, extravagance, dignity, independence, magic, creativity, energy, self-confidence, ego, ambition, fame, luxury, big profits, richness, sensuality, elegance, contemplation, meditation, majesty, lesbianism, Wicca, New Age spirituality, paganism, conceit, arrogance, nausea

Almost 75 percent of pre-adolescent children prefer purple to all other colors, making bright purple effective for promotion of children's products. Light purple is useful for feminine designs. Excessive exposure to purple may cause people to become sullen, withdrawn and ill-at-ease with their surroundings. Purple is a polarising colour - people either love it or hate it.

Lavender : Yang, sexual indecision, malleability, romance, nostalgia, feminity

Dark purple : gloom, sadness, frustration, royalty, richness

Mauve : Yang, world consciousness

Violet : Meditation, creativity, concentration, quietness, creative force, beauty, inspiration, artistry, music, chivalrous love, excellence, ethereal, sensuality, responsibility, sacrifice

Blue purple : mystical


Red purple : sensual, quirky

 

White

European : Marriage, angels, hospitals, doctors, peace, milk Japan : Mourning, white carnation means death

China : Death, mourning

India : Unhappiness

Eastern : Funerals

Feng Shui : Yang, Metal, death, mourning, ancestal spirits, ghosts, poise, confidence

White : spirituality, goddess, peace, higher self, purity, virginity, reverence, simplicity, cleanliness, humility, precision, innocence, youth, birth, winter, snow, good, sterility, cold, clinical, sterility, clarity, perfection, innocence, virginity, goodness, light, fairness, safety, positivity, faith, coolness, charity, successful innovations, union, self-sacrifice, holiness, feminine divinity, pristine, chastity, positivity

All white rooms can be uncomfortable with a stark atmosphere. White is useful for a background or accent colour as it highlights other colours. White is perceived by the eye as a brilliant colour.

White can indicate simplicity with high-tech products and safety and cleanliness with medical products.

 

Silver

Feng Shui : Yin, Metal, trustworthiness, romance .

Silver : glamous, distinguishment, high tech, industrial, graceful aging, telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychometry, intuition, dreams, astral energies, female power, communication, goddess, ornate riches, sleekness, modernity

To create a high-tech look, use silver with other colours. Silver works well combined with gold and white to promote a feeling of control and power.

Silver and other reflectors are strong eye attractors and are associated with life-giving water.

 

Grey

Feng Shui : Yin, Metal, dead, dull, indefinite

Grey : security, reliability, intelligence, staid, modesty, dignity, maturity, solid, conservative, practical, old age, sadness, boring, practicality, professional, sophisticated, durability, quality, quiet, conservativeness, gloominess, sadness

 

Black

European : Funerals, death, mourning, rebellion, cool, restfulness

China : Colour for young boys

Thailand : Bad luck, unhappiness, evil

Judaism : Unhappiness, bad luck, evil

Australian Aboriginals : colour of the people, ceremonial ochre

Feng Shui : Yin, Water, money, income, career success, emotional protection, power, stability, bruises, evil

Black : protection, repelling negativity, binding, shapeshifting, power, sexuality, sophistication, formality, elegance, classy, wealth, power, mystery, fear, evil, anonymity, unhappiness, depth, style, evil, sadness, remorse, anger, underground, modern music, space, high quality, bad luck, formality, reservedness, dignity, elegance, secretiveness, fear of the unknown, night, emptiness, dirtiness, sophistication, strength of character, dramatic, authority, prestige, grief, anger, reliability, strong, classic, strength, anti-establishment, modernism, serious

. Black is an excellent technical colour and it assist targetting a sophisticated high-end market or a youth market to add mystery. Over a large area, black can be depressing. Though black backgrounds can enhance perspective and depth, they diminish readibility of text. Useful for web sites for art and photography to help other colours to vibrate.

 

To share your thoughts with the author of this article about the meaning of colours, please feel free to register and post on the Sibagraphics blog.

Sylvia Posadas, Sibagraphics © 2004, 2006, 2009.

Bibliography

¹ Jill Morton, http://www.colormatters.com/color_trademark.html
² Kathy Lamancusa, 2003, http://www.creativelatitude.com/articles/articles_lamacusa_color.html
³ Jill Morton, 2000, http://www.colormatters.com/chatquest.html
4 Ibid.
5 Jacci Howard Bear, http://desktoppub.about.com/cs/colorselection/p/turquoise.htm

Useful Color Links

Cubes, cones, and color: Cutting through the RGB and HSV colorspaces with clarity
http://www.colorcombo.com/
http://www.websitetips.com/color/
http://www.thetech.org/exhibits/online/color/
http://www.color-wheel-pro.com/color-meaning.html
http://www.libpng.org/pub/png/
http://www.mountevansdesigns.com/articles_colors.html
http://joehallock.com/edu/COM498/associations.html
http://www.marketingprofs.com/4/arruda13.asp
http://www.bwwsociety.org/feature/color.htm

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