#7: Exploring Color & Its Meanings in Design

BlogPost#7_Color-02Last time we talked about why it is important to understand color and the underlying meanings associated with it. This time, I’m going to go into more detail about each specific color and talk about how those colors effect perceptions. Although color on its own can have its own connotations, the context and application of the color is the most important indicator of how that color will make you feel. I have always color information from Pantone. Whether it be the color trends or researching color combinations, a lot of my insight is from years of reading Pantone books by Leatrice Eiseman and soaking in all the resources they have to offer. They are an amazing place to look for color information since Pantone is the definitive source for color matching and color finding for creatives.
Now, it is super important that designers use color intelligently. I noted last time that choosing colors based on personal preference is the sign of a lazy designer. I said this because in order to use colors in context correctly, you must research the colors you are considering and take into account the subconscious messages those colors may send. And research is extra work, it takes time to look into the colors that have a positive and a negative feeling (depending on culture) attached to them. For example black can be solid and trustworthy or dark and depressing. Colors are used to manipulate the viewer and knowledge of color psychology can be a powerful tool that we designers yield. When done deliberately and with skill, use of color manipulation and application to a logo or design can be extremely effective. When used as a complementary element to type and images, color can establish a strong brand presence.

The world we live in is visually stimulated and even non-verbal, it’s an amazing thing that we [designers] have the opportunity to create a communication link using our skills with color. Below is a list of the categories of colors and some of their meanings. It is by no means exhaustive; there are many feelings and associations attached to each color. The downloadable PDF resource I have included at the bottom of this blog is a more thorough reference guide to many of the psychological and underlying meanings associated with these colors.

BlogPost#7-Red-02-01RED: A person’s reactions to the color red are built in physiologically, we haven control over how red effects us. It excites a chemical reaction that causes you to breathe more rapidly, and increases heart rate, pulse, and the flow of adrenaline. This color has the most life, it is the color of blood which is life or the color of bloodshed (positive and negative reactions). It commands movement and can will us to stop at the same time. Whether it is bright or subtle, red causes an instinctual mindset for us to either act or react. It is one of the most powerful colors you can use so it should be used thoughtfully and carefully. The brightest reds make the boldest statements  while deep reds are more subtle in their suggestiveness. They are connected to the rich and elegant, as are the burgundy tones. If you want a color that demands attention then red is your color.


BlogPost#7-Pink-02-01PINK: Pink has a tendency to be moody (much like the adolescents that are attracted to it). Depending on its intensity or value, pink can be everything from sweet, romantic, and optimistic (rose pink) to filled with wild abandon, or faddish. Bright pinks feel much like the red that they come from, they emit high energy and exert a youthful and even sensual force. Pale pinks are often used to calm. If you are looking for something fun but still commanding and you don’t necessarily need staying power, then perhaps pink is what you’re looking for.


BlogPost#7-Orange-02-01 ORANGE: Although orange is often seen as playful and not to be taken seriously, it is certainly not a color that can be ignored. Since it is a perfect blend of yellow and red, the two most powerful colors, it is at the same time dramatic (from the red tones) and good-spirited (from the yellow tones). Many of the names used to describe shades of orange are also the names of foods: tangerine, melon, carrot, mandarin, pumpkin. This makes orange a naturally appetizing color. It is friendly, extroverted, and more approachable than red because it is less aggressive. Orange represents the inescapable need for warmth and comfort, much like a child, which adds to the connotation of orange being a childish hue. Orange is one of the most tactile colors when in its “infant” shades of peaches and can be very nurturing and appealing. When you’re in need of a color that is a little more complex than red and less intense than yellow, you may want to give orange a try. It will be unexpected and when used right, it can be pretty fantastic. 



BlogPost#7-Yellow-05-01 YELLOW: Yellow is another power color. It is warm, because it is the color of the sun, it is the essence of light. It implies an intellectual energy, curiosity and the need for enlightenment — the ability to see all things more clearly— literally and philosophically. It is also an extroverted color. Yellow has been proven to heighten awareness and create clarity. Yellow is perceived very highly as it is seen as “lighting the way to intelligence, originality, and the resourcefulness of an open mind” (Leatrice Eiseman). It can be a color of hope, joy, and optimism. Black and yellow are a dominating, unignorable combination, and the message they send is rooted in the human mind to WATCH OUT ! Yellow light waves are said to stimulate the brain and bring clear-headed decisive action. Pale yellows are the most pleasant and are often associated with babies. Yellow can be a polarizing color so beware your use of it and choose your shade wisely if you decide to use it because it will be noticed.


BlogPost#7-Blue-02-01 BLUE: Blue is one of the most versatile and popular colors. Light, mid and deep blues can all bring a feeling of rest and introspection, a coolness of mind. It is symbolic of mercy, justice and morality; as such, it is also seen as a protective color among many cultures. Dark blues are more serious and thought-provoking as they retreat and draw inward (Picasso’s “Blue Period” ring a bell?). Moody blues are those that lean to the grayer side and are more unsettling. Periwinkle (because of the red undertone) is the happiest and warmest of the blue shades and tends to be more approachable. Blue is always dependable as it is the color of the sky which is one thing that can be counted on day after day to be there. It can be very sophisticated and powerful (deep/navy blue) or soft, peaceful, and reassuring (light blue). If you’re looking for a color that will help you portray dependability and constancy while instilling trust, then you can’t possibly go wrong with a blue.


BlogPost#7-Green-02-01 GREEN:  We have the ability to see more shades of green than any other color. As a result there are many varying moods it can convey. Physiologically green affects the nervous system causing us to breathe slowly and deeply, helping the heart to relax by slowing the production of stress hormones. It is a harmonized, empathetic, and soothing color. Some shades of green are lively, lush, and fertile while others are super trendy, artsy, and bold. Darker shades are more traditional and stately, while the shades of aqua/teal/turquoise can represent faith, truth, and compassion. Green is always full of life. It can become cool and clean in the bluer hues and have an appealing warmth in the yellower. Because green is so alive, it almost always invites a positive response. There are no other colors that give your design the natural vitality that green can, so when you need to infuse your design with a color that signifies life and growth, then green is going to be the best choice.


BlogPost#7-Purple-02-01 PURPLE: Since purple is a combination of red and blue, it can be a little bit confusing and can be hard for people to “get”. Purple can often elude many people, especially the left brained, so don’t be surprised if you have to really explain your use of purple to a client. Many shades of purple are names for flowers, which adds to a friendly feeling. It has its own distinct personality that speaks of a uniqueness, a sense of originality; it is seen as unordinary and sometimes unusual. It also expresses mystical, heavenly, spiritual, and transcendental qualities on the reddish side. The lighter shades are more romantic and contemplative, even whimsical. Amethyst tends to take on some of the protective qualities of the blue family. While lavenders are nostalgic and gentle. Purples are also seen as rich, and interesting. Purple can also be a trendy color in certain contexts so be especially aware of your target audience with this color. This color can be a subtle eye-catcher because of the rarity of its usage. But if you want something differently engaging and interesting, then be brave, and try purple. All a client can say, is no. 


BlogPost#7-Neutrals-02-01 NEUTRALS & GREYS: Using gray can definitely be tricky because a true gray is rarely found in nature. Color matching is best done against a gray background. If someone wears gray they are seen as responsible, steadfast, accountable, solid, and resolute. Greys are classic, modest and quiet, but also solid and enduring. People use “gray matter” (the brain) and that relates the color grey to wisdom. Using more vibrant colors with grey can create excitement and yet have an underlying assurance. Taupe is flexible and conveys authenticity, versatility, and is thought of as organic, and unobtrusive. It embodies a lack of trendiness and is instead timeless. Off whites and beiges are considered to be without color but can carry an undertone of warmth and pleasantness. These are the most unchanging and they are the “essential” colors that can ground a design. These colors are best when combined with other colors and can be used almost interchangeably. Overuse of neutrals in a design can be attention-getting or completely overwhelming and drab, so shade choice is key. Using a neutral in your design is almost always a good idea.


BlogPost#7-White-02-01 WHITE: White is delicate and innocent, it implies silence and an almost total lack of sound. The eye is sensitive to even the smallest shade of white, especially when they are placed next to each other. It is pure and clean and is the perfect expression of extreme opposites when combined with black. It can however seem immaculate, sterile, clinical, and cold if used incorrectly. Utilization of white space is one of the key components to a great design.


BlogPost#7-Black-02-01 BLACK: This color has a very bold presence and is very forward. Adding black to any color makes that color seem more powerful, subtly creating an illusion of depth, weight, solidity, and substance. In the early 20th century widows villains and clergy wore black which gave it a very serious feeling. Eventually beatniks, rockers, bikers, punks, and goth kids adapted black as their way to go against a society whose values and/or appearances they did not relate with. It is sophisticated and perceived as “worth more”. It can be everything from powerful, to mysterious, and even hi-tech. It has the dichotomy of being both modern and classic, sophisticated and magical. Black can be seen negatively often as it is associated with death, mourning, evil and can sometimes feel menacing. When overused or used incorrectly black can create “holes” in your design and may draw the viewer to grow tired of looking at it.


BlogPost#7-Brown-02-01 BROWN: Because of its history, brown is seen as down to earth, as it has often been the shade worn by workingmen and women. Muted browns are perceived as dependable, lacking social pretensions, and are synonymous with piety, economy, industriousness, and modest ambitions. Brown is also seen as non-threatening, it is the color of the earth and this generally makes people feel positively about it. Because brown is made from undertones of red, yellow, and/or orange, tones that appeal to the appetite, it is also a “delicious” color (chocolate anyone?). The context and shade of this particular color are especially important to determining how it will be viewed. The deeper and more red the brown, the richer and more appetizing it will be. And its reverse is true, the more yellow or orange and less saturated the brown is, the more inexpensive and organic it will feel. It is almost a neutral and can be combined cleverly with other colors to create interesting connotations. If you’re looking for something a bit warmer and more reliable than a grey, white, or even black, using brown could be a great solution. 

I hope that this “quick” study of color theory, psychology, and possible uses has been helpful. I have used this information (mostly taken from Pantone resources along with my own personal experiences) to create very effective designs of all kinds. Knowing and learning this information has been one of the most useful skills I have in my arsenal and gives me confidence in my work. When you can choose colors intellectually and not just instinctually, you infuse your designs with a level of creative aptitude that many people in the field lack. This will set you apart!
Please download and share the resource below. It is meant to be a printable standard size sheet of all the colors and some of the feelings they can give off. I hope you get lots of use out of it and allow what you learn to propel your designs to the next level. Next time I will talk a bit about color combinations and color palettes and the color fun will continue! Design is a wonderful world, I hope you’ll join me here. Because design matters. 
Little Guide for Designers on Color & Meanings 
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