Biologist Timothy H. Goldsmith explained that, “color is not actually a property of light or of objects that reflect light. It is a sensation that arises within the brain.”
Wearing red can tip the scales in your favor if you’re an athlete facing a well-matched competitor. Blue light therapy is frequently used to reduce the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. And one study even found that suicide rates decreased by an astounding 74% at train stations in Japan when blue lights were installed.
We don’t just see colors, we feel them — which makes them one of the most powerful tools in a designer’s toolkit. Whether you’re choosing colors for a logo design or simply color-coding a spreadsheet, it’s important to choose colors that are aligned with your message and not ones that could work against you.
Color in history
Dating back to early civilizations, color symbolism is a powerful force that’s been reinforced over millennia. Red has served as a symbol of evil since at least 4,000 B.C. Red was commonly used as an accent color in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to denote danger or evil — and it remains a primary team color of the New Jersey Devils — an NHL hockey team — today.
There’s evidence to suggest that color meanings are deeply connected to survival instincts, and not just in humans. Research led by neuroscientist Jerald D. Kralik found that some monkeys share our caution around the color red. And a separate study found that elephants can identify potential predators using a combination of color cues and scent.
Given the mighty powers colors possess, it’s no surprise that all sorts of industries leverage color to influence potential customers. Food purveyors, for example, have been using color to make their products look more appealing to shoppers since at least the time of the Romans. According to an article published in Food Safety Magazine, “wine was artificially colored beginning in at least 300 BC.”
The varied meanings of color
For designers, marketers, and other professionals looking to harness the power of color, it’s important to first consider that colors often mean different things to different people depending on past experiences that have impacted their life.
Here are some important factors that influence color interpretations:
- Geography: Colors carry different significance in different countries or regions. In America, the color predominantly associated with mourning or grief is black. But in China white is more commonly associated with mourning and often worn at funerals by family of the deceased.
- Current events: Pop culture and current events can have a strong impact on the way we relate to different colors.The 2000 presidential election in America, for instance, cemented political associations for Democrats as “blue” and Republicans as “red.”
- Religious affiliation: Depending on which religion you practice, you may interpret purple as a symbol of suffering, royalty, or intuition, among other things.
- Societal groups: Rainbow colors, for example, are often used as a symbol of inclusion and support for the LGBTQ community.
- Team affiliation: Many people feel an affinity to the color combinations associated with their alma mater or their favorite sports team. And they can have a distaste for the colors of their team’s greatest rival.
- Generation: Members of the same generation tend to feel nostalgia for similar color palettes.
So, before you commit to brand colors, do your own market research. If your ideal customer persona is mostly Gen Xers who live in Asia, you’ll likely want to prioritize different colors than if your primary audience are seniors in the US.
10 color meanings every designer should know
There are several ways to think about color as a designer. The color wheel is great for pairing colors or understanding primary colors vs. secondary colors. But when we’re thinking about the individual meaning of colors, it can be helpful to use the “Roy G. Biv” lineup.
When colors are arranged in this order, the meanings shift as we move from left to right. Colors on the far left elicit external or physical action. For example, red might signify “halt!” or “buy now before it’s too late!” Meanwhile, colors on the far right elicit introspection. For instance, purple holds meanings tied to spiritual endeavors and enlightenment.
Let’s take a look at some common meanings of each color.
The color red is commonly associated with:
Red has been a symbol of danger and power perhaps since humans first encountered fire. And that’s how I tend to think about the color red when it comes to design — like a flame. Red is great for illuminating or calling attention to things. We can also use it as a symbol of heat, love, or passion. It’s also useful for creating a sense of urgency.
Orange commonly signifies:
In nature, lots of healthy foods have an orange hue. So, it’s no surprise humans have come to associate orange with health, vitality, and energy. As another warm tone, orange holds meanings quite similar to red, but with less intensity. I like to think of red as a torch and orange as a candle.
Just think about the differences in meaning of red vs. orange when driving. Red means stop, whether it’s a traffic light or a stop sign. Orange, on the other hand, often means “proceed with caution” or “avoid this area.”
The color yellow is commonly associated with:
As the last of the warm colors in the Roy G. Biv color lineup, yellow also shares some overlap in meaning with both orange and red. Yellow also signifies warmth. But if red is a torch and orange is a candle — yellow is the radiating heat from the sun. It’s immensely powerful, but less immediately threatening.
In nature, yellow can be found in a myriad of flower petals and foliage. So, it can be a great color to use for eco-friendly brands or beauty products.
However, yellow can also be a sign of warning and have negative connotations. Wasps, several types of venomous snakes, and some poison dart frogs all have partially yellow coloring. Yellow can also be a sign of illness in humans (yellow mucus is a sign of the body fighting off infection) and biohazard signs are typically bright yellow.
The color green is commonly associated with:
Green shades have strong correlations to growth and prosperity. In nature, green is the color of a lush forest or meadow. Green is one of my personal favorite colors because it is such a strong symbol of balance. Because green is the divider between the cool and warm tones on the Roy G. Biv color lineup, we get warmer yellow-greens and cooler blue-greens. So, you have quite a bit of flexibility in how you use green as a designer.
But like other colors, different shades of green can have very different meanings. Many people associate olive green, for example, with the military because of its prevalence in military uniforms throughout history. Teal, on the other hand, which is a blue-green, is a popular color for beach inspired designs due to its association with the ocean and water. And depending on the situation, green can be a strong symbol of either bad or good luck.
The color blue is commonly associated with:
In many regions, blue colors symbolize water (though this is not the case in China, where black is more commonly a symbol of water) and light blue is often associated with the sky. These correlations to nature have helped solidify blue as representative of calm and serenity — just picture a peaceful sky blue backdrop on an afternoon of cloud gazing or the aquamarine hue of a stream as it trickles down cascading river rocks.
The color blue can also be a strong symbol of reflection, since water — whether it’s in the form of a peaceful lake or a puddle after a rain shower — acts as a mirror.
Dark blues in particular have long standing meanings tied to trust, stability, and loyalty. While there’s some debate over the origin of this meaning, historical documents tie the term “true blue” back to medieval England, where blue clothes dyed in Coventry were known for their “true” or steadfast colors that wouldn’t run or fade. Regardless of where or when this meaning originated, it holds steady today, which is why many healthcare, legal, and financial institutions include blue as one of their brand colors.
Indigo and violet
Purple hues are commonly associated with:
In many religions, indigo and violet hues have meanings tied to important times in a person’s spiritual journey, which makes these colors great for adding a little mystery or mysticism to a design. Yoga practitioners are likely to perceive violet as a symbol of enlightenment, as it is the color of the crown chakra. Catholic priests wear purple during advent and lent — leading up to the birth and resurrection of Jesus. And in Hinduism, purple can be a symbol of unity with God.
The color purple is also a strong symbol of royalty in many countries thanks to the fact that purple dyes used to be particularly expensive and difficult to produce. For a long time only the wealthy elite could afford purple clothes. Some rulers, such as Queen Elizabeth I, even made it illegal for commoners to don purple hues.
Pink can signify:
The existence of the color pink outside of human perception has been the subject of much debate, as you’ll notice it’s not actually on the Roy G. Biv color lineup at all. And this uniqueness is reflected in pink’s color psychology.
Pink is a combination of red and violet — the two far opposite ends of the Roy G. Biv spectrum — and its meanings are influenced by those opposing extremes. Pink can signify love and sympathy as well as spontaneity and calmness.
Pink and magenta hues are often associated with tenderness and empathy, which isn’t surprising given that these colors can be a sign of soreness or pain in the body that might need to be treated with care — think of a scrape, sunburn, or pink eye. In recent years, pink has also become an international symbol of breast cancer awareness, particularly when worn or displayed in the form of a pink ribbon.
Black and white
Similar to pink, there are many people who argue that the “color black” and the “color white” do not actually exist. You’ll notice that black and white also do not appear on the Roy G. Biv color spectrum. This is because black and white are not light wavelengths. Rather, black is complete darkness, or the absence of light, and white is a combination of all visible color wavelengths. But this doesn’t mean that black and while don’t hold powerful meanings.
Black is commonly associated with:
- The unknown
And white is commonly a symbol of:
In ancient Chinese philosophy yin and yang are depicted using black and white. Yin and yang are symbols of opposing energies or elements that balance each other out, such as warmth and cold or masculinity and femininity. This concept of balance carries through today and is very useful when it comes to design, but remember that the interpretation of which color is good or bad may vary.
Earlier in this article we covered how some cultures have stronger associations with mourning and the color black, while others associate mourning with white. We can also see very different interpretations of the meanings of these colors when it comes to black cats. Depending on the person, crossing paths with a black cat could be a sign of bad luck or good luck.
In recent history, black and white have become iconic hues in the world of fashion. Many regions and cultures have come to associate black with sophistication and elegance so much so that the terminology we use in English to describe fancy attire includes the word black — think of a “black tie” affair or the “little black dress” — and white is the first color many brides think of when they picture their wedding dress.
Inclusive and accessible color combinations
While you’re getting creative mixing and matching color schemes, don’t forget to make sure your design is inclusive and accessible.
Approximately 4.5% of the world population has a form of color vision impairment. So, it’s important to make sure the color pairings you’re using don’t diminish visibility for those with colorblindness. Luckily, many design platforms include tools or features that make it easy to assess the inclusivity and accessibility of your designs.
You can use Webflow’s vision preview mode to see what your Webflow website looks like to those with colorblindness. Designers can use Figma’s Color Blind plug-in. And Colorblindly enables you to simulate different types of colorblindness while browsing the internet and developing assets.
Harness the power of color
Next time you’re designing a project — don’t just pick a random color. Think about what you want to convey and how you want to come off to your target audience, and find the color that corresponds with that.
Feel inspired? Get started on a Webflow project today.