Color exists all around us, whether in natural or human-made environments. We see it from the moment we open our eyes to the moment we lay to rest. Our world consists of a variety of colors and combinations, each having some form of effect on us.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, colors have an impact on us. Colors convey strong messages and can affect our moods. Apart from these, they also have the power to influence our behavior and decisions. Although you may not think too much about it, researchers have studied deeply to uncover color meanings.
Ever wonder why the color blue seems to have a calming effect while we might perceive yellow as a lively color? We can attribute these to color meaning and psychology. From the groups of warm and cool colors to color combinations and specifics, color symbolism has fascinated people throughout history.
Color meanings and symbolism can vary from culture to culture and personal preference. However, there are also widespread ways in which color influences the mind. Below, we explore the color wheel and what various colors represent.
Color Meaning and Symbolism
People have explored the science and art of color meanings over the years. Whereas not always top of mind, certain colors and color schemes influence our mood. People in the creative and art field often study color theory and color psychology to understand color's role in our lives. You’ll find that color is an essential aspect of design, whether in graphic or interior design fields.
As a business person, you can tap into color meanings to help you connect with your ideal audience. A mixture of red-orange or red, orange, and yellow is quite common in the food industry. This is why you’ll find food chains like McDonald’s using warm colors for their branding.
We can link the reason for this color scheme choice to the psychology of color. Although color symbolism can change from western cultures to eastern cultures, for instance, biological conditionings also play a role. For this reason, you’ll often find that red triggers hunger and stimulation. On the other hand, yellow triggers feelings of comfort and contentment. A combination of various shades of these colors speaks to appetite1, comfort, and satisfaction.
Apart from their aesthetic value, colors are also tools of communication. The color spectrum is vast, and so are the emotions attached to the various tints, tones, and shades.
Gaining an understanding of what colors mean
Understanding color meanings is not only valuable to designers and marketers. Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the things that influence their behavior can also explore color meaning. By understanding color theory in conjunction with the color wheel, you can begin to understand the impact of color on how we think and feel.
You can begin to understand what roles cool and warm colors play. Furthermore, you can come to know which color combinations suit various needs. The deeper meanings of colors can significantly impact our well-being. As a result, an understanding of the meanings can aid in building color combinations that work for you. This way, you can pay attention to what colors help you relax and those that make you feel agitated.
Although humans have some color connotations wired into our brains, color meanings can stem from multiple factors. One color might have positive connotations in one tradition and negative connotations in another. Apart from this, personal experiences and psychological effects can also affect how we react to colors. Past experiences could largely influence this. For this reason, calming color to one might appear as something else to another.
A good example of color symbolism in cultures is how black is a mourning color in most western cultures, while in some East Asian countries, it’s white. Also, in India, brides wear red on their wedding day as it symbolizes new beginnings and feminine power. In other cultures, this color can simply be an indication of danger.
Where Do Color Meanings Come From?
You might be wondering, “Aren’t they just colors? Where does all this emotional attachment come from?” Colors are, indeed, just colors.
However, our perceptions, history, and biological conditions have affected how we see specific colors. It’s all part of the human experience in which color plays a significant role.
We can’t avoid color. It’s in everything we experience. From the environment in which we grew up to our perceptions of the world, we begin to make associations. Several factors can impact and shape the meaning of colors in our lives. Let’s examine some of them below:
Interaction with Nature
Generally, this refers to our perceptions and how we interact with nature. Certain things are wired in our brains before factors and influences like traditions come in due to interactions.
For instance, when we think of nature, we often see green. This color is prominent in nature, as we can perceive it in the grass, trees, and fields. This instantly makes it easy to associate this color with renewal and growth, embuing organic or natural qualities.
Similarly, the color brown, associated with the earth, often represents grounding, healing, wholesomeness, and stability. Brown is the color of the soil, so it’s easy to see why this meaning follows.
Our personal day-to-day experiences can also shape how we view certain colors over time. For instance, some people instantly think of sophistication and authority when the color black comes up. This could be because of their relation to the fashion industry, especially in luxury fashion.
On the other hand, another person might instantly think of death because they associate the color with funerals where people wear black to mourn. Naturally, these experiences play a role in shaping how we experience colors.
Cultural differences play a significant role in color meaning disparities. In certain cultures, people wear black to mourn, while in others, it’s white. Whereas a combination of all the colors of the rainbow has come to mean pride and equality closely related to the LGTBQ community.
Due to these disparities, it’s important to be sensitive and aware of color usage in different societies. This plays a big role in helping individuals and brands connect with the people of a particular culture.
Context and Time
The situation in which we experience color can also affect the meaning we associate with it. For this reason, designers and businesses need to pay attention to how they use certain colors.
Depending on the situation, red might indicate passion, and it might also mean danger. In this same way, a brand might use a white background in its design to communicate sophistication. If another brand in another industry uses it, it might translate as dull or plain.
Time also plays a role in color meanings and symbolism. At a point in time, people viewed blue as a dainty color and therefore considered it feminine. Over time, this changed, and people started viewing it as a masculine color.
Tints, Tones, and Shades
You might think each color has a single meaning regardless of its tint, tone, or shade. However, these factors also play a role in how we perceive colors. For instance, light blue represents honesty and understanding. Dark blue, however, often communicates sophistication and power.
Apart from this, it can go as far as influencing the decisions we make. Beyond studying the color wheel, understanding color psychology is a powerful move.
Apart from understanding the various shades of colors and terms like complementary colors, psychology relates the color to human behavior. In simple terms, color psychology studies the effects of colors on human behavior. It assigns psychological and emotional associations to certain colors and color groups. This could range from warm colors to cool colors and each color's role.
This field examines not only how colors affect our mood but also how they influence our decisions. For instance, a yellow-green combination can give rise to feelings of optimism and a connection to nature. If a brand uses a combination of bright yellow and light green, this can give rise to feelings of freshness, harmony, and joy.
A clear instance of this is Subway’s brand colors. The American fast-food franchise has a yellow and green logo. This generally translates to freshness and healthy ingredients. When we examine the colors apart, green suggests nature, and yellow indicates optimism and happiness. Together, the brand uses psychology to evoke certain emotions in people.
We can examine how colors affect us with a combination of cultural influences, emotional attachments, and our upbringing. Someone who grew up in a culture that emphasizes pink as feminine and blue as masculine will most likely carry this on. This association is common in the western world.
Baby reveal ceremonies, for instance, highlight this distinction where the pink color means girl and blue means boy. Often, people will use pale pink and baby blue to give these announcements as they represent softness.
When shopping for presents for newborns, many people will opt for blue for boys and pink for girls. This goes to show how color can influence purchase decisions. With progressions in the world now, you’ll also see people opting for neutral colors instead. This is a stance for the argument that colors have no gender.
Color is powerful, whether it’s using light blues to communicate calmness, yellow to convey freshness, or black backgrounds to display authority. Colors’ impact can also sometimes be difficult to measure. For these reasons, color psychology isn't an exact science. However, this doesn’t deny the influence and impact of color in our lives. This also hasn’t stopped businesses from understanding the impact of multiple colors.
How Designers and Brands Use Colors
Designers and businesses often take advantage of the power of colors to evoke feelings and shape behavior. When creating art pieces and building brand identity designs, color plays a crucial role in the process. It’s an essential part of the overall strategy as it goes a long way in shaping how people feel about a brand or art piece.
Choice of color is so powerful that it can ultimately influence the purchase decision of one product over another. This goes beyond brand logos and translates to other touchpoints like product packaging and the actual products.
Color choices can also influence feelings of connection to brands. As a result, intentionally integrating color choices in specific business and design processes can contribute to success.
Did you know that most consumers will consider the color of an item before making a purchase? A study revealed that the majority of the surveyed consumers would consider the color of items when shopping. Out of all the people surveyed, only 1.1% of the 51-65 age group said they didn’t consider color2.
Color Theory in Design and Branding
To further prove the significance of color in the branding and design world, what immediately comes to mind when you think of a brand? More likely than not, it’ll be the brand’s logo. This is why many big brands and experts spend considerable time crafting their brand identity.
Apart from the logo, they ensure that people feel a certain emotion across all touchpoints. Part of this understanding comes from the application of color theory. Since color affects how consumers view a brand’s personality, it only makes sense to use the color wheel intentionally.
In simple terms, color theory refers to the guiding principles of color combinations that aid in creating visually appealing designs. It’s both a science and an art and aids in creating harmonious color combinations.
Apart from the visual appeal, color theory also takes emotions and psychology into account. Understanding these principles helps you understand why and how colors complement each other. It’ll also help you know the appropriate accent color to incorporate into a design.
A grasp of color theory also helps businesses identify the right combinations to elicit certain moods. There’s a time and a place when it's appropriate to use bright colors. On the other hand, particular occasions and atmospheres require something neutral or toned down.
For instance, when you walk into a spa, you’ll notice calm and cool colors more often than not. This is because vibrant and loud colors do nothing for stress levels. Instead, colors like blue, green, grey and pale pink can aid clarity and relaxation. This theory also entails understanding various color concepts like schemes, temperatures, and degrees of intensity.
The Color Wheel
This tool plays a key role in helping us understand how various colors work against each other. As an illustration of the hues, this wheel shows the relationships between primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.
A standard wheel consists of 12 hues. It’s like a pie chart that people use to establish color mixtures. The wheel is also divided into two, separating the warm colors from the cool ones. By understanding colors, their variations, and combinations, one can study their effects on us.
Color Concepts - Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Colors
One of the color wheel divisions is into primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. These concepts form an essential part of understanding color.
The primary colors are blue, red, and yellow, and These colors form the basis of all other colors or hues. We can also call these colors pure since mixing other colors doesn’t form them. They are parent colors as they serve as building blocks. Also, you can’t get primary colors by mixing other colors. They simply stand on their own and represent the basis for all color-related art and design projects. By combining one primary color with another, you can get a secondary color.
Since primary colors are the building blocks or parent colors, secondary colors are like the direct children. We can attain a secondary color by mixing a primary color with another. Green, orange, and purple hues are the secondary colors.
To get the right consistency for a secondary color, you should mix equal parts of primary colors. For instance, yellow and red give you orange, blue and yellow give you green, and red and blue form purple.
We attain a tertiary color by mixing a primary and secondary color. We can form unique blends and establish a rare color by creating these combinations. The names of tertiary colors typically come from their parent colors. As a result, we have blends like yellow-green, red-purple, yellow-orange, red-orange, and so on.
Color Temperature - Warm and Cool Colors
Theorists base another classification of colors on their warmth. We can classify these as either hot and cold or commonly warm and cool.
The warm colors include those that have significant amounts of yellows and reds. Typically, they are red, orange, yellow, and a host of their variations. These colors give off a feeling of warmth and energy. So, using these colors in a design can give off feelings of passion, warmth, and enthusiasm.
On the other hand, cool colors have larger amounts of blue in them. Typically, they are blue, green, purple, and their variations. Unlike warm colors, these colors evoke feelings of calm and relaxation. Depending on the context, a warm color can make you feel happier. The cool ones can bring feelings of sadness to mind.
The Place of the Neutral Color
The standard neutral colors are beige, white, black, brown, and gray. Depending on their undertones, they can lean towards the warmer or cooler ends of the spectrum.
A List of Color Meanings
Here, we’ll explore what some of the popular colors mean. This includes how they make us feel and their roles in nature. We’ll also examine some references to understand how brands and people use them.
What Red Means
Red is a hot color that represents passion, energy, and excitement. It’s an intense color and can therefore evoke strong emotions in us. Red can switch from reminding us of passionate and loving feelings to danger and aggression.
Depending on how we experience it, it can range from strong positive associations to strong negative ones. Red is an attention-grabbing color that can also stimulate our appetite. You’ll find that many food-related brands, like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, use this color.
Due to its powerful nature, red can also create a sense of urgency. Think of the red light on a firefighter’s truck, for instance. Due to this property, many companies use red buttons to draw your attention to a call to action. Apart from companies, you’ll notice that many celebrities wear red for red carpet-events. This color awakens admiration in people and also exudes success.
Check out our picks of the best red quotes for more red inspiration.
What Green Means
Green is a color that has a significant association with nature. When we think of nature, our minds often associate it with green. In nature, we see growth, renewal, and rebirth. This way, we associate green with freshness, renewal, growth, and health.
In some contexts, green represents going or taking action. We can understand this through a phrase like “getting the green light” or even how green means to go in traffic lights. Green can also mean abundance.
In many cultures, green suggests stability and prosperity. In many cases, dark green specifically speaks to ambition and wealth. As a result, dark greens often communicate affluence.
Many health and fitness businesses use the color green in their branding because the meanings associated with the color closely fit their brand. John Deere, for instance, has green as its primary color. Since the company deals with agricultural and forestry machinery, this color ties into the brand’s purpose. When we see green, we also think of healthy eating - like how Hello Fresh, the meal-kit company, uses this color.
Check out our picks of the best green quotes for more green inspiration.
What Blue Means
Blue is a color that is closely linked to nature. The sky is blue, and we also experience this color when we rest by the seaside. As a result, our minds associate this color with serenity, calmness, and relaxation.
When companies use this color in their branding strategy, it often creates feelings of trust and responsibility. Studies show that blue and green are favorable colors for work environments3, apart from building feelings of trust. The results suggested that the color of a work environment impacts mood, well-being, and work outcomes. Although blue, as a general color, often brings about feelings of peace and trust, it can also elicit a sense of sadness.
Experts understand that light and dark shades of blue evoke different emotions. Light blues lean toward a sense of relaxation and serenity. On the other hand, blue greatly influences work and steadfastness, with the darker shades often giving off reliability, stability, and knowledge.
A good example of blue in branding is the Meditation company, Calm, and its use of a lighter shade. Companies like PayPal and Oral-B use darker shades that communicate trustworthiness and reliability.
Check out our picks of the best blue quotes for more blue inspiration.
What Orange Means
Orange is a vibrant color that leaves us feeling optimistic, happy, and creative. Orange communicates playfulness, fun, and creativity. It is a very hot color, coming close to red.
This color instantly catches your attention wherever it shows up - whether on a piece of clothing or within a painting. Similar to green, orange also has links to health. For instance, the way we view oranges which are part of nature. Orange stimulates our mental activity and therefore plays a role in creativity. Dark orange, however, can sometimes represent pride and deceit.
A fun usage of orange is within the Nickelodeon brand. Nickelodeon’s target audience is children. However, their use of the vibrant orange also speaks to the inner child of grown-ups. This tells us that the brand is fun and playful. Another good example of orange in branding is Fanta. Fanta’s entire brand centers around excitement and positivity. So, whenever we see that color, we instantly shift to associations with joy and enthusiasm. Orange is a very energetic color.
Check out our picks of the best orange quotes for more orange inspiration.
What Purple Means
Purple is a prestigious color, and just like black, it also communicates luxury and power. Apart from this, purple is also closely linked to spirituality as it represents wisdom, imagination, and healing.
You’ll often hear that purple is a royal color as it’s connected to nobility. Also, in ancient times, purple dyes were ridiculously expensive, making it difficult for everyone to access them. This made them exclusive primarily to royalty.
When brands intentionally use purple, they either want to communicate luxury, fantasy, or associations with mysticism. Purple has a unique feel as it dabbles between cold and warm. In design, people often use it as an accent color. In today’s world, purple also has a feminine association. Brands like Claire’s and Lady Speed Stick use this color in their branding.
Check out our picks of the best purple quotes for more purple inspiration.
What Yellow Means
Yellow is the color of the sun, and it gives us feelings of hope, happiness, and positivity. When we think of summer colors, yellow often comes to mind. It brings feelings of warmth and optimism, even aiding a positive attitude.
Yellow is a color that instantly grabs attention. Depending on how you use it, yellow can make you feel warm and fuzzy or overwhelmed. However, similar to colors like orange and red, yellow can also tell you to be cautious.
Like other colors, yellow also has different shades that can communicate different meanings. Light yellows can evoke feelings of happiness, while warm yellows can mean healthy and natural. A good use of yellow is in the Ikea logo, as buying new pieces of furniture can bring about joy and happiness. Think yellow ribbons, yellow flows, and a bright yellow palette, and you'll think of a warm tone, and happier associations.
What Pink Means
Pink often revolves around romance, tenderness, playfulness, and femininity. There’s the association of pink as a feminine color in modern times. In this light, you’ll find that many products targeted at girls and women come in pink.
When we see pink, our minds associate it with softness, sensitivity, and sometimes, love. This charming color can evoke feelings of calmness, especially in its softer tints and tones. Darker pink, however, can make images appear vintage.
Common examples of the use of pink are Barbie, Victoria’s Secret, and Cosmopolitan. You’ll notice that these brands have women and girls as their target audience. As times evolve, people are breaking out of this conditioned association of feminine vs. masculine colors. A company like Baskin-Robbins uses pink to communicate its sweetness outside of this usage.
Check out our picks of the best pink quotes for more pink inspiration.
What Black Means
Black is a traditional color and one that we find in almost every design. This popular neutral color can instantly serve as the blueprint for a minimalist aesthetic. On the other hand, many designers and brands also use it to create contrasts against lighter colors.
Black has multiple identities and associations. It can range from exuding feelings of sophistication, elegance, and power to communicating sadness and grief. The way we consciously or unconsciously interpret this color often depends on the context in which we see it.
The fashion industry famously utilizes this color to its advantage. Many luxury fashion brands prominently use black and a monochromatic color palette in their branding to communicate elegance.
Some of these fashion labels include Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. You’ll also notice that they essentially incorporate a white background to create contrast with black across their various touchpoints. This gives off messages of boldness and sophistication. Beyond that, black can also communicate dominance and intimidation, which some brands use to create exclusivity.
Check out our picks of the best black quotes for more black inspiration.
What White Means
White often represents simplicity, cleanliness, and innocence. However, in some cultures, it represents coldness and sterility. So, depending on the cultural situation and context.
In design, people often use white as a base color. This is why you’ll find that many websites have white as the background color. It’s also difficult for people to use white as a stand-alone color. As a result, you’ll typically find it mixed with other colors - whether neutrals or bright ones. A classic combination is a black and white theme.
A good example of the usage of white is in Apple’s packaging. It gives off simplicity and tells us that the company is modern. Apart from the technology industry, another sector that largely uses white is the healthcare industry.
Check out our picks of the best white quotes for more white inspiration.
What Black and White Means
Black and white is a powerful duo. What is truly interesting about this combination is the contrast they create together. Apart from their visual variations, their meanings also greatly differ.
When we see the color white, we often think of purity and peace when we see the color white. On the other hand, black often gives off feelings of mystery and sometimes even evil in some cultures. However, this doesn’t denounce the fact that black has several positive connotations.
When we experience these two colors together, they communicate simplicity and minimalism. This is why when we view certain logos that use this style, we consider the brands as modern and sophisticated.
Several brands that want to appear modern and elegant often go with the classic black and white theme. Again, you’ll notice many luxury brands taking advantage of this style. A good example is how Marc Jacobs, the fashion company, uses this combination. Adidas is another famous brand that embraces black and white contrasts.
Check out our picks of the best black and white quotes for more black-and-white inspiration.
What Beige Means
Beige is a neutral color that evokes calmness. This color is soft and dependable. It offers both the coolness of white and the warmth of brown. It is conservative, calm, and relaxing.
Beige symbolizes comfort and emphasizes simplicity. This color can inspire us, encourage us and soothe us. For these reasons, you’ll find that many homes use Beige as a wall color or choose large furniture pieces in this color.
Beige is diverse as it holds a mixture of grays, yellows, and browns. It’s unique and subtle, and its brown undertones give it a warm feeling. Some might perceive beige as dull and bland due to its absence of a wow factor. However, its use in interior spaces instantly makes for a cozy environment. Livened up with a splash of primary color, it can inspire a vintage or retro feel.
Check out our picks of the best beige quotes for more beige inspiration.
Knowing the different color meanings can help you become more conscious of how you react to certain colors. It also enables you to understand how to approach them in various cultural contexts to avoid offending people.
If you work as a designer, business owner, or marketer, this understanding will help you connect with your audience.
Urie, C. (2018, September 10). There's a sneaky reason why you always see red and yellow on fast food logos. Business Insider.
Goguen, K. (2012). The Influence of color on purchasing decisions related to product design
Savavibool, N., Gatersleben, B., & Moorapun, C. (2018). The effects of colour in work environment: A systematic review. Asian Journal of Behavioural Studies, 3(13), 149.