Everywhere you go, you see colors: white clouds in the sky, green vegetation inching up gray stone structures and red brick buildings, grounding brown soil beneath your feet. You don’t just see these colors…you feel them.
Skilled designers tap into the emotions colors make us feel when they choose the colors for their work. It’s no coincidence that so many fast food logos are red and so many sustainable brands use green in their designs—red can induce hunger and green, the color of healthy plant life, reminds us of the environment. As an entrepreneur or a designer yourself, understanding the science and art of color meanings can help you create more effective, memorable designs.
Where do color meanings come from?
Color meanings come from a variety of places. Some are primal, like the color green’s association with growth and fresh vegetation. Others developed later from modern environments people found themselves contending with, like the color green’s association with poison and death for 18th century Europeans (due to the era’s green dye containing arsenic). And sometimes color meanings can change over time, like how green’s association changed from the color of poison to the color of freshness and vitality (an association you’ll see today in many eco-conscious and plant-inspired brands).
Beyond that, other color meanings appear to have developed purely culturally, like how the color orange is associated with happiness and prosperity in Japan and China. Some color meanings that initially seem purely cultural can be traced to historical innovations or associations. One example of this is South Africa’s association of the color red with mourning. It’s associated with bloodshed and sacrifice and thus, mourning for those who lost and sacrificed their lives. In contrast, many other cultures designate white or black as mourning colors.
Color combinations can have different meanings too. Think about how light blue and white together can make a design look “chilly” and a brown and pink combination can evoke thoughts of candies and other sweet treats.
All this is to say: color meanings don’t exist in a vacuum; there are lots of factors that impact how we perceive them. Some of these factors include:
- Their shade, tint or tone
- How they’re combined with other colors
- Their saturation
- How they’re paired with other design elements like fonts and shapes
The meanings of colors
Red is a warm color associated with passion, love, anger and heightened emotions. It’s easy to see why—blood is red and when our hearts are pounding and our emotions are soaring sky high, that red hue is often visible through our skin. Red is primal; red can be dangerous. Think of alarms, stop signs, rising temperatures and rising tensions.
Red is more than the color of primal passion, though. In many Asian cultures, it’s associated with luck. In Latin America, it’s paired with white to symbolize Christianity. Red can depict a ripe, nutrient-packed cherry or apple or a fire in all its destructive (and restorative) power.
Using red in design
Use red in a design that demands a bold, impactful color the viewer can’t ignore. That’s what makes it such a great choice for buttons and highlighted text—the elements you don’t want viewers to overlook:
The next warm color on our list, orange, has a few similar associations to red: energy, boldness and brightness. But it lacks that dangerous bite red has. Orange feels safer, which could be why it’s such a popular color for safety equipment.
Orange can feel like youthful zest, so it’s a popular color for brands that appeal to children. It combines the warmth and heat of red with the playfulness and joy of yellow. Beyond this, it’s a great choice for really any brand that aims to exude a sense of energy or intensity. When orange is muted, it can feel autumnal, which makes it perfect for any brand leaning into an earthy color palette.
Using orange in design
If you’re a sophisticated brand, it’s usually best to stay away from orange. Orange is loud and can even be obnoxious, which is perfect if you’re a bold, boisterous brand that’s not quite in-your-face enough to make red your main brand color. However, if you’re a yoga studio or a fine jeweler, orange probably isn’t the color for you. Use orange to communicate vivaciousness, creativity, youth and even accessibility.
Yellow is the color of the sun, smiley faces and sunflowers. It’s a happy, youthful color, full of hope and positivity. It’s another color that grabs your attention and for that reason can also be used to signify caution, like red and orange. It’s another warm color that can feel upbeat and bright.
Yellow, like other colors in this list, has different cultural meanings around the world. In the Middle East and Latin America, it’s a color of mourning. In Africa, it’s the color of wealth. In western cultures, it’s the color of joy, youthfulness and fun. This is one color where it’s critical to know your audience when you’re designing because while a yellow logo for a funeral service makes sense in Guatemala, it doesn’t in France.
Using yellow in design
As we mentioned above, be mindful of your audience when you use yellow, and every other color, in design. Any way you use it, yellow is an attention-grabber. You can go with a bright or neon yellow to amp that up. Or you can go with a paler yellow for something that’s more subdued, but still taps into audiences’ associations with the hue, like brightness and positivity.
When most people see green, they think of plants and produce. More specifically, they think of healthy plants and produce, like a thriving ivy climbing a fence or a healthy green smoothie to start the day. Some cultures have more specific associations with the color green, like East Asian cultures that push green’s association with new life and vitality to also symbolize youth and fertility. In the Middle East, green is also associated with wealth and fertility, and it’s also associated with Islam.
Brands often use green to signal that they value health focusing on healthy, sustainable food options. Green is also a cool color, and cool colors (in contrast to warm colors) often feel more subdued and calm.
The color green can also be used to communicate that they’re affirming and accessible, essentially tapping into how traffic lights have trained us to associate the color green with permission to move forward. Green can also represent wealth, prosperity and stability, as you see with financial brands that use the color.
Using green in design
You can communicate lots of different values, like luck, wealth, freshness and organic growth with green. Green is also a common choice to communicate moving forward (think of the green “go” on a stoplight—this makes it a popular choice for buttons in web design) and environmentalism and sustainability, as well as comfort and prosperity.
Although they aren’t actually opposite each other on the color wheel, many people think of blue and red as opposite colors. That extends to their associations—while red is brash and bold, blue is calm and cool. Think of the vast midday sky or a calm blue lake. When most people think of cool colors, blue is the first hue to come to mind.
Blue also has spiritual associations in various cultures around the world. In Latin America, it’s associated with the Virgin Mary. In India, it’s associated with Krishna. And in the Middle East, blue is associated with heaven.
Using blue in design
For a cool, calm feel, choose blue. We mean it literally, too. Brands that supply ice or cooling solutions (yes, ice cream counts as a cooling solution) can communicate this literal coolness through blue logos.
Brands use the color blue to communicate that they’re calm, cool and trustworthy. It’s a popular color for tech brands, financial institutions and any brand that aims to communicate professionalism and dependability. Even if you aren’t in the tech or financial sector, a blue logo signals that you’re an even-keeled, serene brand that isn’t packing any surprises.
Whether you call it purple or violet, it’s that deep shade made by mixing blue and red that communicates things like decadence and royalty when it’s dark and fun and whimsy when it’s light.
Purple is a lot of things. It’s mysterious. It’s magical. It can be playful, but it can also be reverent. Across the globe, purple has been the color of royalty and clergy for centuries. You can work with this association by using purple in your designs. Unlike black and white, the colors typically associated with a minimalist sophistication, purple feels rich. It’s sophisticated but in a more fabulous, maximalist way.
Using violet in design
Purple is also an example of a color’s meaning evolving in real time. Blue is still a popular color for banking and finance brands, but purple is becoming increasingly possible in this space as well, especially in the crypto and tech industries. This could be because of brands’ efforts to break away from that traditional association of blue as being predictable, or it could be an attempt to capitalize on purple’s association with wealth and luxury.
Use purple when you want to evoke those luxurious, royal connections—combine it with gold for that extra ‘wow’. For a more informal, fun spin on your brand, go with a lighter, more candy-like shade of purple.
Pink, even when it’s a blinding bright hot pink, feels softer than red. It’s red without the aggression. Pink is the color of bubblegum and carnations. And hot pink can feel funky and futuristic. It doesn’t take itself too seriously; it’s fun.
Brands that want to attract youthful and casual audiences can do so with the color pink. It’s also a natural choice for candy brands, bakeries and anybody else offering up something sweet. That sweetness extends to flirtiness and romance, too—floral designers and romantic resorts can get a lot of mileage out of pink design, but they’re not the only ones. While those brands often stick to pastel pinks and soft shades, other brands, like Lyft and other industry disruptors, make bold statements with saturated magentas and bright neon pinks.
Using pink in design
Use pink in your designs if your goal is to present your brand as sweet, youthful, romantic or fun (or all of the above!). Pastel pinks are also a great hue for baby-focused brands, or brands looking for a softer and delicate look and feel. And going to the other extreme, hot pink can make a design feel funky and futuristic.
Brown is a natural color, associated with the earth and as a result gives a sense of stability and support. Given its link to the earth and nature, brown brings to mind farming and agriculture and other outdoorsy activities. It feels very earthy and natural.
It’s a color that’s warm and friendly, practical and dependable, and can also represent the old-fashioned and well-established, even rugged at times, which is exactly why established, dependable, and rugged brands go with brown in their designs.
Using brown in design
Brown doesn’t have to be boring! There are lots of ways to use brown in design, like to communicate your sustainable practices or an outdoor brand. Or to create a sense of warmth and familiarity (think freshly baked cookies!). The color brown is also great for an “established, worn-in” color, a perfect choice for any brand with a vintage or handcrafted feel.
Despite white light actually containing all colors, our eyes perceive it as a lack of color. And that “lack” of color makes white feel like a blank canvas, something new and full of potential.
When used in design and branding, white creates a minimalist aesthetic. It can be very simple, clean and modern. It’s also the most neutral color of all and can be quite non-descript as a base for other, more exciting, colors.
Using white in design
White is a common color for brands that want to communicate values like cleanliness, freshness and minimalism. Because of its association with minimalism, it can feel sophisticated…especially when it’s paired with black or a metallic hue.
Another way to use white in design is to take advantage of negative space. This is the space surrounding and sometimes, within the “main” part of your logo. Designing with negative space in mind is a strategy you can use to work additional imagery into a fairly simple logo or to give your viewers a little “aha!” moment when they first notice the design in the negative space.
Black is an incredibly versatile color and probably the most used color in graphic design. When it comes to branding and marketing, black is generally associated with exclusivity, power and elegance. It’s bold, powerful and a little mysterious, which makes it a firm favorite of modern brands.
It’s a color that gives off a look and feel of luxury, so it’s a popular color for high-end brands. These kinds of brands often pair black with a metallic shade, much like they pair white with metallics for a sophisticated look. If your brand is chic, but the white minimalist look doesn’t quite fit, embrace the darkness and feature black in your design.
Using black in design
As we mentioned, black is powerful and exudes an air of luxury when it’s the main color. But it also works as a neutral, either contrasting or complementing lighter shades in a design. And if your brand has a gothic, punk or mysterious feel, black is a natural choice.
Gray is more than just light black. It’s a middle point between black and white, which is why it’s a great way to communicate balance. It’s also a useful supporting color when you need something to contrast the brighter colors in your design.
It’s a mature, responsible color. And has positive connotations of formality and dependability, while the negative side can mean being overly conservative, conventional and lacking in emotion. It’s safe and quite subdued, serious and reserved. That’s not to say the color is “boring,” gray can feel safe, simple and formal. Brands choose gray as the main color when their goal is to present themselves as the safe, straightforward option.
Using gray in design
Despite gray often feeling like the dependable, conservative choice, don’t assume that’s all gray can be! A smoky charcoal gray can create an air of intrigue. And using a medium gray hue can communicate the same values that blue communicates: professionalism and dependability. When you need to express these in your logo and blue just won’t do, try gray.
Metallics are another color category that designers often use to communicate values and provoke emotional associations in viewers.
Metallics are different from other colors. They aren’t on the color wheel, but we perceive them as distinct shades. Think about it—there’s a clear difference between gold and yellow, even if gold coins and other objects are sometimes depicted as yellow. That clear difference is the shine. It’s that little glint that makes the onomatopoeia “bling bling” in cartoons.
Using metallics in design
Typically, designers use metallics to communicate that an object is expensive or rare. The association is obvious: actual precious metals like gold and silver have been used as currency for millennia. When coins aren’t literally made of these metals, currency is often tied to these metals’ value.
Use metallics to communicate sophistication and elegance. You can do this with just about any metallic—no need to stick to traditional shades like gold, silver and bronze.
Know your colors (and get great design)
Take some time to determine which colors best communicate your brand values. By doing this, you’ll be able to create your own designs more effectively—and, if you work with a designer, communicate your vision to them in a way they can understand you and design something that fits what you describe. Remember, choosing the right colors goes beyond just picking out a nice-looking palette. It’s a careful consideration of colors’ cultural meanings, emotional associations and aesthetics.
Once you know which colors you need, work with an experienced designer to bring your vision to life. A designer might suggest colors you never considered or combine two or more hues in a way you never dreamed would work for your brand. Make it a collaborative partnership that feels as friendly as yellow, as bold as red and as dependable as blue.
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This article was originally written by Anna Lundberg and published in 2019. It has been updated with new examples and information.