Color Meaning and Symbolism (The Ultimate Guide)
Our relationships with color are both natural and cultural:
- Colors in Nature – Even bugs use bright colors as a signal of their toxicity to potential predators.
- Colors in Culture – Culturally, most societies have also developed their own understandings of color meanings.
In western culture, for example, we might make the following color associations:
Infographic: Common Color Meanings
Notably, colors can have many different and even contradictory meanings.
Indeed, green may symbolize money in one context and nature in another. Similarly, in one context red may symbolize passion and in the next it may warn of danger.
An intimate understanding of how color impacts human emotions can be a powerful thing.
Whether it is someone choosing a shade of lipstick on a first date or an advertising executive choosing a color scheme for his brand, knowledge of the effects of colors on human psychology can help us get what we want.
12 Examples of Color Symbolism
Red is known as both the color of passion and danger.
While at first these two associations might seem conflicting, there is one thing they have in common: they are both urgent emotions.
Thus, when we see red, we are compelled to take quick action. Be it the stunning woman in a red dress known to enhance her attractiveness, the McDonald’s sign demanding we purchase food, or stopping at a red stop light, red demands our attention.
In fact, red is the most researched color there is thanks in large part to the well-known ‘red effect’. This effect spans everything from theories on why football teams that wear red win more games through to the idea that bright red in educational contexts stimulates avoidance motivations.
Orange is a mix of red and yellow. It garners some of the symbolism of each.
It represents the heat, fire, and energy of red but also the joy of yellow. It is therefore primarily seen as a color that symbolizes a combination of warmth and comfort.
The warmth of orange is on display during beautiful sunsets and the autumn months when leaves turn orange. Tones of orange are also often utilized to depict moments of nostalgia. Sunsets and autumn are both times that represent the ending of something and can bring about nostalgia with the help of orange tones.
We also often use the color orange as a warning sign. Its high degree of visibility and proximity to red can catch the eye and alert people of possible dangers. But being softer than red, it doesn’t highlight imminent danger but rather warns of the possibility of danger.
This warning signification is also on display in orange worker vests which are often orange to alert people to their presence.
Yellow primarily symbolizes happiness.
Its association with the sun and sunflowers evokes emotions of positivity while its brightness situates it in stark contrast to the negative dark colors like black.
Western culture also often associates yellow with creativity, intellect, and liberalism. In fact, liberal political parties like the UK’s Liberal Democrats often utilize yellow as their party’s official color.
Like red and orange, yellow is a warm color, meaning it can also be used to attract attention and act as a warning. For example, it is often used in road markings to clearly contrast with the grey of asphalt.
Despite its positive signification, yellow is also the least liked color in the world, making it a divisive color that many branding experts choose to avoid so they don’t alienate consumers.
Purple is the color of royalty.
It has this symbolism because, in the past, purple was a rare and inaccessible color tone for the common folk. Purple fabrics were outrageously expensive, which only made it possible for rulers to have it.
Even during Rome and Ancient Egypt, only rulers were able to afford purple clothing.
During Elizabeth I’s reign, purple was reserved for the royal family alone by law. The so-called Sumptuary Laws forbade anyone who was not a part of the royal family to wear purple clothing.
However, purple can also be seen negatively. We can associate it with opulence and extravagance. Darker purples can also be worn in times of mourning due to its proximity to blackness.
Pink is the most gendered of colors. It is seen as feminine. Parents often dress their girls in pink to quickly signify their gender to passers by.
However, in the 19th Century, pink was actually seen as a masculine color because of its association with energy and activity. Blue was seen as calmer and passive, so was assigned to girls who were expected to be more passive people.
But soon, the gender of the colors was flipped. Pink came to be associated with women because warmer colors can signify emotion, which is more associated with women than men.
Pink is a combination of red and white, so it shares both the emotion of red and the gentleness of white. So, it is associated with gentle and feminine emotions like love, compassion, and tenderness.
Brown is a color found in nature, so is often associated with naturalness and a return to earth. It is used extensively in woody alpine homes to complement the theme of being in nature.
Nevertheless, brown is also often avoided by advertisers and marketers because it is neutral, dull and doesn’t catch the eye on shelves.
The exception to this rule is when advertisers want to signify that their products are natural or recycled. In these cases, browns are utilized to disassociate the product with unnatural bright colors not found in nature.
Culturally, brown can also be understood as a ‘down to earth’ color. We can see it as reliable, humble, and even subtle.
Blue is the most popular color for both women and men.
For babies, we associate blue with boys, in contrast to the association of pink with girls. This is a purely Western cultural signification that is only about 250 years old.
Blue is also seen as a calming color. It is associated with the calmness of the ocean and the positivity on a blue-sky day. Many day spas and hotel retreats use it to create a calming atmosphere, while fast food restaurants tend to avoid it as it is seen as an appetite suppressant.
Despite the fact blue is the most popular color in the world, it is also often associated with sadness and even depression. We use phrases like “Why so blue?” to refer to someone’s sadness.
Green is a color with many positive and negative cultural significations.
Positive associations with green include naturalness, growth, and balance. These significations stem from the fact plants and trees that are healthy and growing often display vibrant green leaves.
In Islam, Green is the color of paradise, with the belief that people in paradise wear green silk garments. Thus, many Islamic countries like Pakistan and Iran have green on their flags.
Yet, western culture also sees green as a color of envy, greed, money, and even illness. Thus, we see The Grinch who stole Christmas as a green character and use terms like “green around the gills” to talk about someone who is ill.
Black is a color of absence, mystery and even deceit.
Blackness signifies nothingness. It falls over the world like a veil each night. In the absence of light, we cannot see around us, which can fill people with fear, mystery, and uncertainty. It feels as if demons come out in the darkness that is characterized by back all around us.
But black can also symbolize power. A black suit is seen as the most serious and powerful type of suit that a man can wear. Black limousines with black tint are vehicles that we associate with powerful people such as politicians.
We also associate black with sadness, depression, and mourning. Mourners wear black to funerals, while we call depression “the black dog” that follows us around.
Gray is an emotionless color. It is neither hot not cold and is always dull.
Gray is a blend of white and black. It therefore occupies an in-between space between two extremes. This middling ‘gray area’ is often seen as representing compromise, uncertainty, or complexity.
Due to its emotionless, gray is also a color that’s seen as serious and masculine. You will often see powerful people wearing gray suits. This helps them symbolize their objectivity and lack of emotionality in the workplace.
Despite these strong masculine significations, gray is a color rarely used in marketing because researchers have found that consumers interpret gray packaging to be cheap. Furthermore, it is dull and does not stand out on a shelf.
White primarily symbolizes peace and purity.
Women in western cultures traditionally wear a white dress to their wedding to signify their purity. Similarly, white doves are released at weddings and christenings as a symbol of peace and God’s grace.
Other common meanings behind whiteness include cleanliness and purity. Detergent brands will often employ whiteness in their advertisements to symbolize the cleanliness that the detergents can deliver.
White is also employed in the battle of good vs evil. The good people (often also religious figures or angels) are often clad in white while the bad people are clad in black.
The black-and-white dichotomy is also utilized in rhetoric when comparing any two things that are exact opposites, as with the phrase “it’s black and white”.
A mix of multiple colors, such as in the rainbow, is a symbol of diversity and unity.
Multiple colors are often employed in brands to generate unique meaning. The Pride flag, for example, is used as a symbol of the value and joy in diversity.
Brands like NBC, Crayola, and Google also use multiple colors to represent diversity and inclusion. For Crayola, the colors may also symbolize fun. The multiple different colors adds a ‘splash of color’ to life, signifying the fun and joy of bright colors in general.
1. In Brand Marketing
Color is so powerful because it is one of the first things our minds uses to make judgement calls.
In fact, it is a common refrain in marketing that consumers make their product decisions within the first 90 seconds of exposure to a brand.
To make a good impression, the advertisers need to use colors in those first 90 seconds effectively.
But the effectiveness of the color schemes is context-dependant.
For example, this study finds that red evokes hunger in consumers while blue can be an appetite suppressant. Thus, fast food chains often use red as a way to evoke hunger and encourage a fast purchase.
However, upscale restaurants will often employ blues to create a calm atmosphere and encourage people to eat more slowly. These restaurants are not in the business of quickly satisfying hunger but selling a slow, immersive food experience with a focus on quality over speed.
Another study of pain killer medication highlights that red is seen by consumers as an undesirable color due to its association with danger and blood. Instead, blues are used to evoke a calming effect while greens subtly promote the idea that the painkillers are natural and therefore will do no harm to your body.
2. In Education
Given that colors can affect our moods and motivations, educational researchers have looked at how we can use color to enhance learning.
One scientific study in the Journal Psychol Sci found people’s recall recognition of images increases by 5% when the images are in color. Another study found that people recall and recognize colorful objects faster than black-and-white objects.
Students can also use color to more effectively categorize information in their minds.
For example, this study shows that color coding study notes in contrasting colors can help students to more effectively categorize information into easy-to-retrieve silos of information in the mind.
Furthermore, while red has historically been the chosen pen color for grading papers, some research has shown this can be counter-intuitive. Students associate red pen with chastisement and negativity and it often provokes avoidance motivations.
This study, for example, found that students perceive that teachers who use neutral color pens are nicer, more enthusiastic, and have better rapport with their students.
Cultural Differences in Color Meanings
While this article has explored dominant understandings of colors in western cultures, non-western cultures can have very different understandings of colors.
Chinese culture, for example, has its own extensive history of color associations that differ from western associations.
The cultural differences in our understandings of the meanings behind colors reveals the subjectivity of color symbolism. Symbolism itself is inherently subjective and based on longstanding cultural, mythical, religious, and historical ideas.
Below are some examples of cultural differences in color meanings.
Table: Cultural Differences in Color Meanings
|Color||Dominant Western Meanings||Alternate Cultural Meanings|
|1. Blue||Tranquility, calm, sadness.||In parts of India, blue connotes strength because it is the color of Krishna.|
In Mexico, blue is the color of mourning.
|2. Red||Passion, energy, danger.||In China, red is a symbol of good luck and happiness.|
|3. Green||Nature, money, envy.||In China, Green can represent infidelity. In Islam, it is the color of paradise.|
|4. Yellow||Happiness, positivity, creativity.||In Africa, yellow symbolizes wealth and status. In Latin America, it symbolizes mourning.|
|5. Orange||Warmth, harvest, comfort, energy, warning.||In China, orange represents courage, happiness, and health.|
In the Netherlands, it represents royalty.
Color meanings are highly contextual. They can mean different things depending upon the person, the culture, and even the very specific situation in which they are used.
But a nuanced understanding of color meanings can be very useful. Marketers can use colors to create associations between a brand and a certain emotion. Educators can use them to support learning. And every one of us can think about the meanings behind colors every morning when we choose our outfit for the day.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.