How Colour Communicates Meaning

Colour is a powerful and important communication tool, and it is tied to religious, cultural, political and social influences.

By stopping to consider what each colour represents and is linked to in the ‘real world’ we can make informed design decisions that ensure we appeal to our target audience. Without this consideration we run the risk of offending the very people were are designing for.

[Notice: Learn more about colour and design processes at The Future of Web Design New York City on Nov 16-17]

#1 It Affects your Mood

mood_colour

Most of us have a favourite colour or prefer some colours over others. This is because can affect our moods so we surround ourselves in the colours that have a positive impact on our mood.

Red can boost your energy, yellow often makes people feel happier, and blue is proven to bring down blood pressure and slow your heart rate which is why it is often associated with being relaxing. If you combine the happiness of yellow and the relaxing feel of blue you get green, a very pleasing colour for many people.

Mental health units are known to use pastel tones on their walls so that patients feel calm, happy, and relaxed. Walls that are beige with a pink tint combined with mint green floors are a popular combination as it is said to create a soothing, harmonious and calm area. At the other end of the spectrum, literally, schools tend to user bright colours that appeal to children.

When choosing colours for your next design it is important to consider how they will combine and sit with the other elements on the page and what impact that will have on the mood of your audience.

#2 Colours Communicate Invisibly

Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first pioneers of colour theory. A renowned Russian painter and art theorist, he is often considered the founder of abstract art. Kandinsky believed the following colours communicate the following qualities:

  • Yellow – warm, exciting, happy
  • Blue – deep, peaceful, supernatural
  • Green – peace, stillness, nature
  • White – harmony, silence, cleanliness
  • Black – grief, dark, unknown
  • Red – glowing, confidence, alive
  • Orange – radiant, healthy, serious

#3 Colour has Cultural Significance

Different colours mean different things in different places. This is extremely important for designers to know because without an awareness of the cultural significance of a particular colour, you risk offending your entire target audience.

Purple for example is a colour of mourning in Thailand. In western culture however, it is associated with royalty, luxury, wealth and sometimes magic. The brand colour for Thai Airways is purple. On first glance this seems like a huge error on their part because as mentioned above, purple is a colour of mourning in Thailand.

It is most likely however, that the Thai Airways website isn’t aimed at locals but at tourists, therefore if westerners view the site and see purple it will associate Thai Airways with values such as luxury and comfort.

Other examples are:

  • In western cultures black is a colour of mourning
  • In Japan however it is a colour of honour, with white the colour of mourning
  • Red in the west represents danger, love, passion
  • In India it is a colour of purity, in China it is a colour of good luck and in South Africa it is a colour of mourning
  • Yellow represents courage in Japan, mourning in Egypt and hope in the West

#4 Colour can be Inspired by our Surroundings

brown_nature

We live in a colourful world, a world that acts as the perfect inspirational trigger for design. The best thing about looking to the environment for design solutions is that the palette is always changing, from autumnal oranges to cold winter blues. So where better to look than out of your window, take in the colours and then apply them to your designs.

Drawing inspiration from nature for your designs also makes you look at the world differently. Normally we whiz by from place to place but you notice the finer details and undiscovered gems when you actually stop to take it in.

#5 Colour has Political Associations

colours_politics

Individual political parties are associated with one colour or another. Depending on whom your audience is, this might prove to be valuable information when designing.

The association between political parties and colours isn’t a new connection but it is often taken for granted. In the UK for example the following pairings exist:

  • Labour – Red
  • Conservative – Blue
  • Liberal Democrats – Yellow
  • The Green Party – Green

If a colour is representative of a political party then the values and behaviours that the party is known for can be suggested through the use of this colour.

  • Red is often linked to socialism and communism
  • White has links to pacifism and the surrender flag. In contrast to this, black is a colour that is used in conjunction with anarchism.
  • Working class Nazism is associated with the colour brown as the SA were known as the ‘brownshirts’.

A design with one of these colours as the dominant shade may well hint at a right wing or a left wing preference or at extreme behaviours.

#6 Religion can be Linked to Colours

orange_monks

As with politics, colours are representative of certain religions. So as not to unintentionally offend anyone through your designs, some examples of these colour/religion associations are:

  • Green is considered to be the holy colour of Islam
  • Judaism is represented by the colour yellow
  • In Hinduism, many gods have blue skin
  • White is linked to peace across many religions

Again this may only be necessary information if you are designing a site that has specific links to religion but it also emphasises that a thorough knowledge of your audience is a fundamental part of the design process.

#7 Age Affects People’s Colour Preferences

Colour expert Faber Birren carried out many studies into this area and in his book Color Psychology and ColorTherapy, he states that for both genders, blue and red “maintain a high preference throughout life”. He found that yellow is popular with children but as become move into adulthood it shows less popularity. Birren found that “with maturity comes a greater liking for hues of shorter wave length (blue, green, purple) than for hues of longer wave length (red, orange, and yellow)”

Another factor that influences people’s colour preferences is that throughout their life there will be social and cultural changes and this can directly impact on their favourite colours. Some knowledge of what colours certain age ranges prefer can be valuable for designers. If you were designing a website for a toy store or a children’s TV channel, then knowing they prefer bright colours and yellow in particular would help with your design decisions.

Likewise, if you designed a website for a charity whereby the audience was to be the older generation then blue, green or purple might be ideal, based on Birren’s findings.

Conclusion

Colour is a complex subject with many strands and it has the power to subliminally convey values and stories. Please share your thoughts and opinions about colour, in the comments below.

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Comments

36 comments on “How Colour Communicates Meaning

  1. It’s easy to forget that 1 in 4 men and 1 in 25 women are colour-blind. If you rely on the choice of colour to signal, or emphasise information in an interface, you may not get the results you’d intended…

  2. Really interesting article – thank you very much. I am beginning to look into how universal colour interpretation is – particularly across different cultures. I wander how much of our perception of colour is defined by life experience and how much is ‘pre-programmed’ into us as human beings. Great food for thought.

  3. Nice post, but it’s worth clearing up some misconceptions. First, much of our knowledge on colour associations is anecdotal and, as you rightly point out, are culturally determined. One intriguing example from Communist China exemplifies this point well. Since the revolution was symbolized by the color red, some members of the Red Guard complained about the use of this color to mean ‘stop’ in traffic lights. They argued that the traditional ordering of traffic lights should be reversed: that is, green should stand for ‘stop’ and red should stand for ‘go’ since the color red was seen as symbolising progress. More recently, it has been shown that in North America most individuals associate the concept ‘cold’ with the color blue; but in China the salient color here is white. Also, even within a culture there is ‘interference’ between concepts: in the West, red may signify ‘take immediate action’ but it can also signify ‘stop’; additionally, red may stand for ‘hot’ or ‘danger’ or ‘on’ (as in power). Finally, some of these associations are stronger than others: so for example, green for go and red for stop are almost universal in Western culture, whereas blue for off is associated by only around one in three individuals.

    Also, Gareth Marlow: the stats on colour blindness are 8% of men and 0.4% of women.

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  5. I think it is important to note as well that the associations of colors are always changing. For instance, today we usually associate baby colors by gender where Girls are usually associate with Light Pink and Boys with Baby Blue. These associations used to be reversed until around the 1940’s. Light Pink used to be used for Baby Boys because it was considered a lighter version of Red which was considered a more masculine color. The change to associated Pink with Girls and Blue with Boys is often said to be a result of popular superhero colors corresponding to the switch in mentality. The most obvious points to Superman who first appeared in the late 1930’s.

  6. While I appreciate your efforts to educate people about color and have written seven books on the subject myself (the latest being the Pantone Guide to Communicating With Color and Color Messages and Meanings) I do have to say that color concepts can change with time– even culturally. For example, white has been traditionally the color of mourning in China but now young brides are wearing romantic white gowns with veils (in ddition to traditional red dress for another ceremony) as this is the cool new look that imitates Western tastes. So it is hardly the color of mourning for that purpose. and China Airlines planes are now white with blue underbellies. Yellow is not the traditional color for people of Jewish descent, but blue is more often related to that religion. Yellow was the color of the armbands and Jewish stars that the Nazis made them wear during the terrible days of WWII. There is a lot of “urban legendary” that does exist around color, much of it dated. So my word of advice is to check to be certain that information is keeping up with the time and resultant changes in attitudes.

    Thank you again for such an engaging website.

    Leatrice Eiseman
    http://www.colorexpert.com
    morealivewithcolor.com

  7. Interesting post, especially the findings of the colour expert Faber Birren about the connection between maturity and a preference of colours with a shorter wave length.

    Have to go see what I can find about that on Google!

  8. In Thailand purple is also a royal color. It’s the color of Thailand’s favored orchid which has links to the royal family and the King who is extremely popular over here which is why Thai Airway’s color is purple. Purple is also the color for Saturday and every day has it’s own color. Thai people will wear colored t-shirts on those day especially yellow (for Thailand) and pink (the King was born on this day). So yes, color is very important and I’m still amazed how much of this type of regional information simply doesn’t exist on the web outside the West and Europe.

    A good follow up article would be how web design in general differs from that in the west. I live in asia and the majority of websites here would be capable of giving the average person epileptic fits :) and I’m sure it would be different in other regions too… what makes a good website in the west definitely doesn’t automatically mean it will be just as successful elsewhere.

  9. Thanks for all the comments.

    The points about colour blindness, gender, and how concepts and meanings can change over time stress even further that colour is a complex issue and should be carefully considered. It is clearly a topic that could lend itself to many posts.

    I particularly like the comment from Stuart regarding the nature versus nurture debate. Indeed, how much are we in control of our decisions and how much is subconscious/innate? This extends beyond colour too and is applicable to signs, language, and storytelling.

    Ultimately I hope that my post demonstrates some of the issues surrounding colour and emphasises that underneath all the layers there is an audience and they must be kept in mind when the colour making decision is being made :)

    Thanks

    Rob

  10. Color represent our self , our way of living .If you throw light over old history of india, you will get enough details about it.Yoga is also adding some meanings to our life.

  11. In Japan some centuries ago white was the colour of mourning, in todays Japanese society almost nobody remembers that and black is the colour of mourning.

    The _traditional_ (as considered nowaday) kimono for a funeral (喪服) is black. Yes black. I really hope after a few centuries someone will get that right. I’ve just read that false information too many times.

    • I just wanted to add that in China white is the colour of mourning as in Japan. To refer to the visit of Miss Segolène Royal on the China’s great wall (when she made an ashamed mistake) ;).
      I’m sorry if my english is not very good ^^
      This article is very good !

  12. Really good comprehensive intro to color associations and meanings. I love that you mention Faber Birren! I’ve found travel to be incredibly stimulating in terms of color… combos, hues, and juxtapositions I never would have imagined become exciting and meaningful when they’re perceived in context. For me, the biggest design challenge is trimming my palette–it’s really hard to pare down to those meaningful & most significant few that will make the most visual sense.

  13. I enjoyed this in-depth article and would like to add a point: Color takes on meaning in context. Just as the autumn leaves look spectacular as you scan the treeline and compare a half-dozen different hues, any of the colors you mention above in your article take on an ability to stimulate us more completely when they’re placed into relationship with other colors.

    Your own blog site illustrates this point nicely. The neutral, greenish putty color of the background makes the orange buttons and highlights more vibrant. You have created depth on a flat screen through the use of recessive and dominant colors. In the same way, the color of a brand takes on meaning relative to the colors of its competitors in the market. This gives us the opportunity to zig while others are zagging.

    As Matisse said (I’m grossly paraphrasing), if you happen to put down a disagreeable color on your canvas, don’t scrape it off. Put down another color to make it more harmonious.

  14. very nice article about color..but i need you or anyone opinion about my problem ‘how to solve color blindness in a creative way’ i mean somebody who have a potential in design and creative but they no chances in this industry (like creative in advertising agency) because of they are color blind…u have idea! tq

  15. This is a really insightful article on colour, and the various different meanings and history behind certain colour preferences. I find that in my design work, i choose colours which i think compliment each other, but im sure i have a subconscious recognition of why i would choose blue and green as the basis for a Physiotherapist website.

  16. it is very usefull for business to run successfully.. to understand the customer need&wants…….
    thanq……

  17. hi!!!!!!!Thank u so much for writing this article on colours..it really helped me alot because one of my assignments was on colours.it truly is an intresting and insipiring article…good job