“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.
Red is a very emotionally intense color. It enhances human metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure. It has very high visibility, which is why stop signs, stoplights, and fire equipment are usually painted red. In heraldry, red is used to indicate courage. It is a color found in many national flags.
Use in Design & Advertising
Red brings text and images to the foreground. It is used to stimulate people to make quick decisions; it is a perfect color for ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Click Here’ buttons on Internet banners and websites. In advertising, red is often used to evoke erotic feelings (red lips, red nails, red-light districts, ‘Lady in Red’, etc). Red is widely used to indicate danger (high-voltage signs, traffic lights). This color is also commonly associated with energy, so would be appropriate when promoting energy drinks, games, cars and other items related to sports and high physical activity.
- 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
Red suggests the form of the square and the cube. It is hot, dry and opaque in quality. It is solid and substantial. It is extremely advancing and holds the strongest of all attractions to stimulus. Because it is sharply focused by the eye, it lends itself to structural planes and sharp angles.
Here is the vital color. Love red in a big and generous way and you have real courage before life. You are vigorous and given to action, for life means much to you. Do you like sports? Are you inclined to be very positive in what you have to say?
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.
Green supposedly has healing power. It is the most restful color for the human eye; it can improve vision. Green suggests stability and endurance. Sometimes green denotes lack of experience; for example, a ‘greenhorn’ is a novice. In heraldry, green indicates growth and hope. Green, as opposed to red, means safety; it is the color of free passage in road traffic.
Use in Design & Advertising
Green is used to indicate safety when advertising drugs and medical products. Green is directly related to nature, so is used to promote ‘green’ or natural products. Dull, darker green is associated with money, the financial world, banking, Wall Street.
- 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
Green suggests the form of the hexagon or the icosahedron. It is cool, fresh, soft. It is not sharply focused and therefore does not lend itself to much angularity. It is a big color and can dominate the eye without distressing it.
This is nature’s color, preferred by human beings who are likewise fresh and natural in personality. If you like green, you are sure to have a rather broad interest in the world, to be aware of the problems of life, to be tolerant and somewhat liberal.
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.
Yellow produces a warming effect, arouses cheerfulness, stimulates mental activity, and generates muscle energy. Yellow is often associated with food. Bright, pure yellow is an attention getter, which is the reason taxicabs are painted this color. When overused, yellow may have a disturbing effect; it is known that babies cry more in yellow rooms. Yellow is seen before other colors when placed against black; this combination is often used to issue a warning. In heraldry, yellow indicates honor and loyalty. Later the meaning of yellow was connected with cowardice.
Use in Design & Advertising
Use yellow to evoke pleasant, cheerful feelings. You can choose yellow to promote children’s products and items related to leisure. Yellow is very effective for attracting attention, so use it to highlight the most important elements of your design. Men usually perceive yellow as a very lighthearted, ‘childish’ color, so it is not recommended to use yellow when selling prestigious, expensive products to men—nobody will buy a yellow business suit or a yellow Mercedes. Yellow is an unstable and spontaneous color, so avoid using yellow if you want to suggest stability and safety. Light yellow tends to disappear into white, so it usually needs a dark color to highlight it. Shades of yellow are visually unappealing because they loose cheerfulness and become dingy.
- 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
Yellow suggests the form of the triangle or the pyramid, with its apex down. It is the color of highest visibility in the spectrum and therefore sharp, angular and crisp in quality; but it is more celestial than wordly. It is without solid base, lofty and reaches upward into space.
This hue is often picked as a favorite color by very intelligent people. If you like yellow, you are probably high-minded and, perhaps, a person who is drawn into reforms or strange groups.
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.
Blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It slows human metabolism and produces a calming effect. Blue is strongly associated with tranquility and calmness. In heraldry, blue is used to symbolize piety and sincerity.
Use in Design & Advertising
You can use blue to promote products and services related to cleanliness (water purification filters, cleaning liquids, vodka), air and sky (airlines, airports, air conditioners), water and sea (sea voyages, mineral water). As opposed to emotionally warm colors like red, orange, and yellow; blue is linked to consciousness and intellect. Use blue to suggest precision when promoting high-tech products. Blue is a masculine color; according to studies, it is highly accepted among males. Dark blue is associated with depth, expertise, and stability; it is a preferred color for corporate America and by survey is the “favorite” color.
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
Blue suggests the circle or the sphere. It is cold, wet, transparent, atmospheric. Blue is retiring, dignified, and tends to create a blurred image in the eye. While it may have bulk, it does not seem to lend itself to angularity.
Here is the color of conservatism and dignity. You are sensitive to others, sensitive to yourself. You have real weight to your character and never enter into any silly enthusiasms without careful thought.
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).
Black is a mysterious color associated with fear and the unknown (black holes). It usually has a negative connotation (blacklist, black humor, ‘black death’). In heraldry, black is the symbol of grief.
Use in Design & Advertising
Black gives the feeling of perspective and depth, but a black background diminishes readability. A black suit or dress can make you look thinner. When designing for a gallery of art or photography, you can use a black or gray background to make the other colors stand out. Black contrasts well with bright colors. Combined with red or orange—other very powerful colors—black gives a very aggressive color scheme. Black also communicates elegance and prestige and thus is commonly used in high-end products, such as smartphones, limousines, formal suits and Jack Daniel packaging.
- 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.
White is associated with goodness, innocence and virginity. It is considered to be the color of perfection. White means safety, purity, and cleanliness. As opposed to black, white usually has a positive connotation. White can represent a successful beginning. In heraldry, white depicts faith and purity.
Use in Design & Advertising
In advertising, white is associated with coolness and cleanliness because it’s the color of snow. You can use white to suggest simplicity in high-tech products. White is an appropriate color for charitable organizations; angels are usually imagined wearing white clothes. White is associated with hospitals, doctors, and sterility, so you can use white to suggest safety when promoting medical products. White is often associated with low weight, low-fat food, and dairy products.
- 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 combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It is associated with joy, sunshine, the tropics. Orange represents enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, creativity, determination, attraction, success, encouragement and stimulation.
Use in Design & Advertising
To the human eye, orange is a very hot color, so it gives the sensation of heat. Nevertheless, orange is not as aggressive as red. Orange increases oxygen supply to the brain, produces an invigorating effect, and stimulates mental activity. It is highly accepted among young people. As a citrus color, orange is associated with healthy food and stimulates appetite. Orange is the color of fall and harvest. In heraldry, orange is symbolic of strength and endurance.
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
Orange suggests the form of the rectangle. It is less earthly in quality than red, more tinged with a feeling of incandescence. It is warm, dry, compelling. Optically, it produces a sharp image and therefore lends itself to angles and to well-defined ornaments.
Choose orange and you are a person to be envied. For you are a “hail fellow well met.” Perhaps not so ardent and so passionate as the red type, you still have a grand love for life.
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.
Purple combines the stability of blue and the energy of red. It symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition. It conveys wealth and extravagance. Purple is associated with wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery, and magic.
Use in Design & Advertising
According to surveys, almost 75 percent of pre-adolescent children prefer purple to all other colors. Purple is a very rare color in nature; some people consider it to be artificial.
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
Purple suggests the form of the oval. It is even more refined than blue. The eye finds difficulty in focusing an image of it sharply. It is thus soft, flowing and never angular. Unlike blue, however, it is not so lofty but clings closer to earth.
Two different types of people like purple—very profound beings and those who merely wish to appear so.
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