“The subject of color seems to have almost endless ramifications
and to touch upon life in almost every quarter, for color is rich in lore,
rich in meaning and purpose.” – Faber Birren
There is a large array of emotional responses that are associated with colors. Some of these are obvious, some obscure. Certain associations are specific to a country or region, while others are universally recognized—being rooted in human anatomy or observable natural phenomena. Some colors can have different meanings, even opposing meanings, based entirely on context and application.
While there are many, many factors that come into play when coming up with a design’s color, this should certainly be one of them. By knowing that red and yellow are the most visually attention-grabbing colors, you might design a better billboard. Knowing that blue signifies knowledge may help decide the color of a library’s logo. Like most things related to design, these aren’t rules set in concrete but rather one more tool that you can use or intentionally violate to deliver your intended message.
In this article, I’ve collected and summarized the emotions and concepts associated with the six basic colors, plus black and white. I’ve tried to make it as definitive as possible and included numerous examples, but the more you study this subject, the more you will find. The most definitive texts on the subject, in my opinion, are the books of Faber Birren, who was a consultant on color and color theory and put out numerous books on the subject.
With that caveat, you should find this article comprehensive and useful in design, photography and illustration. And if you do find something missing, please feel free to leave a comment.
(Note on Character Studies: I’ve included these as I found them interesting, not because I believe they are accurate or true. And aside from being an interesting read, they also may be of use to character designers or costume designers who are having trouble figuring out the color choices of their characters.)
“At once, red is the passionate and ardent hue of the spectrum, marking the saint and the sinner, patriotism and anarchy, love and hatred, compassion and war.” – Faber Birren
Warmth, anger, crudity, excitement, power, strength, love, passion, fire, blood, extreme emotions, battle. Red is supposed to prompt impulse buying. It has been used by the church to give the feeling of pomp and circumstance. In history it represents royalty, majesty and triumph. Usually thought of as a violent and exciting color.
- General Appearance: Brilliant, intense, opaque, dry
- Mental Associations: Hot, fire, heat, blood
- Direction Associations: Danger, Christmas, Fourth of July, Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, Flag
- Objective Impressions: Passionate, exciting, fervent, active
- Subjective Impressions: Intensity, rage, rapacity, fierceness
- Signifies: strength, health, vigor, lust, danger
- Holiday: Yule
- Planet: Mars
- Day: Tuesday
- Astrological: Scorpio
In affairs of the heart you are rather likely to be fickle. Because of your eagerness for excitement you may break many old hearts in your glamorous efforts to win new ones. But people who understand you recognize that you are a very human person, after all, and will more readily forgive your faults than you will forgive theirs.
You are quick to judge people. First impressions count with you and very often cause you to act emotionally rather than mentally.
- Light red represents joy, sexuality, passion, sensitivity, and love.
- Pink signifies romance, love, and friendship. It denotes feminine qualities and passiveness.
- Dark red is associated with vigor, willpower, rage, anger, leadership, courage, longing, malice, and wrath.
- Brown suggests stability and denotes masculine qualities.
- Reddish-brown is associated with harvest and fall.
Spring, the macabre, freshness, mystery, envy, hope, eternal life. Being composed of yellow and blue, green presents the feeling of light and coolness, cheer and restraint. It is the color of nature as usually seen. Green alleviates tension and implies restfulness.
- General Appearance: Clear, moist
- Mental Associations: Cool, nature, water
- Direction Associations: Clear, Saint Patrick’s Day
- Objective Impressions: Quieting, refreshing, peaceful, growing
- Subjective Impressions: Repulsiveness, disease, terror, guilt
- Signifies: finances, fertility, luck, success, charity, growth, rejuvenation, ambition, greed and jealousy, plant kingdom, herbal healing
- Planets: Venus, Mercury
- Days: Friday, Wednesday
- Holidays: Spring Equinox, Beltane, Saint Patrick’s Day
- Astrological: Taurus
Because your mind is clear and full of varied attentions, you are an agreeable person. You like to play bridge, to shop, to read all the best-selling books. You respect money and are anxious to improve your standard of living. In this, perhaps, you are like many others. Yet the chief difference in you is that you delight in friends, travel, sensible luxuries, without being either miserly or inclined to put on a false front. You are good and normal, and relish the scandals of others while carefully avoiding them within your own household.
- Dark green is associated with ambition, greed, and jealousy.
- Yellow-green can indicate sickness, cowardice, discord, and jealousy.
- Aqua is associated with emotional healing and protection.
- Olive green is the traditional color of peace and ironically a color common in military uniforms.
Value, sunlight, the Orient, treachery, brilliance, joy. Being nearest to sunlight, it is connected with cheer and springtime. Yellow claims attention first and fastest and sits alongside red as the most obvious and vibrant color.
- General Appearance: Sunny, incandescent, radiant
- Mental Associations: Sunlight
- Direction Associations: Caution
- Objective Impressions: Cheerful, inspiring, vital, celestial
- Subjective Impressions: High spirit, health
- Signifies: knowledge, learning, concentration, persuasion, charm, confidence, jealousy, joy, comfort
- Planet: Mercury
- Day: Wednesday
- Astrological: Gemini, Leo
You have a beautifully controlled temper. Yet the temper is there, nonetheless, and you are quite capable of putting people in their places if you feel so moved. People you meet for the first time may not always think you the most friendly soul in the world; but those who know you intimately will respect and cherish your profound character.
You long secretly for the admiration of others. While you outwardly resist flattery, you inwardly glory in it. You are inclined to live alone mentally. You are a true friend and a rare soul who can keep secrets.
- Dull (dingy) yellow represents caution, decay, sickness, and jealousy.
- Light yellow is associated with intellect, freshness, and joy.
Blue is usually associated with knowledge and serenity. Coolness, ethereality, the infinite, significance, repose, formality. It is associated with the sky, the ocean and ice. It has always been the symbol of truth and purity. Loyalty, compassion, connotes serenity.
Avoid using blue when promoting food and cooking, because blue suppresses appetite. When used together with warm colors like yellow or red, blue can create high-impact, vibrant designs; for example, blue-yellow-red is a perfect color scheme for a superhero.
- General Appearance: Transparent, wet
- Mental Associations: Cold, sky, water, ice
- Direction Associations: Service, flag
- Objective Impressions: Subduing, melancholy, contemplative, sober
- Subjective Impressions: Gloom, fearfulness, secrecy
- Signifies: tranquility, understanding, patience, health, truth, devotion, sincerity, honor, loyalty, peace, wisdom, protection during sleep, astral projection
- Planets: Moon, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter
- Days: Monday, Friday, Saturday, Thursday
- Astrological: Libra, Sagittarius
You are not one to monopolize conversations, although you can hold your own when you once make up your mind to do so. You are cautious in word, dress and action. What troubles you most, however, is an inability to let go in moments of excitement. Perhaps situations and personalities bother you unduly.
When you sin, your conscience is bothered, but you will sin just the same. This is because you have a rational mind and know how to justify yourself.
- Light blue is associated with health, healing, tranquility, understanding, and softness.
- Dark blue represents knowledge, power, integrity, and seriousness.
Death, gloom, sorry, hidden action, evil, mourning, disorientation through absence of light. Black denotes strength and authority; it is considered to be a very formal, elegant, and prestigious color (black tie, black Mercedes).
- General Appearance: Spatial—darkness
- Mental Associations: Neutral, night, emptiness
- Direction Associations: Mourning
- Objective Impressions: Funeral, ominous, deadly, depressing
- Subjective Impressions: Negation of spirit, death
- Signifies: Negation without reflecting, unlocking when stuck, banishing evil or negativity
- Holiday: Samhain
- Planet: Saturn
- Day: Saturday
- Deities: The Crone
- Astrological: Scorpio & Capricorn
Snow, delicacy, purity, cold, peace, cleanliness, elegance, frailty, mourning, enlightenment, faith, glory, salvation. Orientation through light. In war, white means surrender.
- General Appearance: Spatial—light
- Mental Associations: Cool, snow
- Direction Associations: Cleanliness, Mother’s Day, flag
- Objective Impressions: Pure, clean, frank, youthful
- Subjective Impressions: Brightness of Spirit, normality
- Signifies: purity, consecration, meditation, divination, exorcism, the full moon, healing, peace, spiritual strength, may be substituted for any other color
- Planet: Moon
- Day: Monday
- Astrological: Cancer
Being made of yellow and red, orange gives the idea of light and heat. It is the color of pride and ambition. Associated with sunshine and warmth, considered cheerful.
Orange has very high visibility, so you can use it to catch attention and highlight the most important elements of your design. Orange is very effective for promoting food products and toys.
It’s disadvantage is that by survey of “favorite color” orange usually comes the lowest and thus it is rarely used for longer term products, such as cars or electronic products.
- General Appearance: Bright, luminous, glowing
- Mental Associations: Warm, metallic, autumn
- Direction Associations: Halloween, Thanksgiving
- Objective Impressions: Jovial, Lively, energetic, forceful
- Subjective Impressions: Hilarity, exuberance, indulgence
- Signifies: encouragement, adaptability, stimulation, attraction, plenty, kindness
- Holiday: Candlemas
- Deities: Brigid
- Planets: Sun, Mars, Mercury
- Days: Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday
Your taste runs to cheerful friends and good foods. You are just as much at ease among sinners as among saints. In fact, much of your life is devoted to things social. Yet, you should be careful. People may say behind your back that your last friend is always your best friend.
You are not one to be alone. You like eminent people, whether they are prizefighters or presidents. You want life to surround you, warm and mellow, like the orange glow from a fireplace.
You make the ideal bachelor or spinster, perhaps because you are inclined to know a little about many people and not very much about one or two.
- Dark orange can mean deceit and distrust.
- Red-orange corresponds to desire, sexual passion, pleasure, domination, aggression, and thirst for action.
- Gold evokes the feeling of prestige. The meaning of gold is illumination, wisdom, and wealth. Gold often symbolizes high quality.
Color of royalty. Has a strong religious significance. It is used as half-mourning. By associations, it gives a feeling of mystery. It is the color of shadows.
Light purple is a good choice for a feminine design. You can use bright purple when promoting children’s products.
- General Appearance: Deep, soft, atmospheric
- Mental Associations: Cool, mist, darkness, shadow
- Direction Associations: Mourning, Easter
- Objective Impressions: Dignified, pompous, mournful, mystic
- Subjective Impressions: Loneliness, desperation
- Signifies: power, piety, sanctity, sentimentality, tension, sadness amplification of other energies, wisdom, high ideals, spiritual protection and healing, psychic ability, protective energy
- Planet: Jupiter
- Day: Thursday
- Astrological: Sagittarius
Choose purple and you are, no doubt, a mystery to yourself as well as to others. Aristocratic and artistic people often favor the hue for its exclusive dignity. Such persons are generally satisfied with themselves, sometimes conceited and nearly always capable of great things.
If you like purple, you no doubt lay claim (if only in your heart) to a rather superior attitude toward the world; but, if you are extremely clever, are you also inclined to be a trifle lazy?
Purple types are easy to live with. They are neither too bold, like red, nor too straight-laced, like blue. Yet they must beware of any “lavender-and-old-lace” tendencies, which may snare them if they don’t watch out.
- Light purple evokes romantic and nostalgic feelings.
- Dark purple evokes gloom and sad feelings. It can cause frustration.
There are certain color combinations which together have their own symbolism.
RED & GREEN
Red and green together denote pain (and, ironically, Christmas).
BLACK & WHITE
Black relieved with white signifies sophistication, vigor, newness.
BLACK & RED
Black and red together are the colors of enemy.
REFERENCES & ADDITIONAL READING
- While I had “Selling with Color” as a reference for this article, any of the books by Faber Birren are an excellent resource on color and a worthwhile study for any designer. Here are the books he has available on Amazon.
- Character Analysis through Color, by Martin Lang
- Color Wheel Pro: Color Meaning
- Color Symbolism on About.com
- Color Symbolism on About.com
- The Meanings of Colors
- Color Assignments & Associations
- Color Psychology: Do Colors Affect Your Mood?
- Wikipedia article on Color Psychology