A guide to colour meaning.
Learn how to use colour psychology to complement and amplify your message. Once you understand the meanings of colours, you’ll be well on your way to creating impactful designs that evoke the right emotion.
Everything you need to pick a winning colour scheme.
One fascinating aspect of colour theory is the psychology of colour, which explains how people interpret colours and ascribe meaning to them. Colour influences how you feel about a product, how you make decisions and how you interpret messages.
Because colour is such a powerful tool for artists and designers, learning how to harness it is a surefire way to set yourself up for success. Whether you want to create a new logo design or mock up a website homepage, knowing the meaning of colours and their associations will help you to pick the best colours to tell your story.
Create with all the colours of the rainbow.
Red is a very strong colour with associations both positive and negative. On the positive side, red symbolises strength, passion and confidence. But it can also be aggressive, symbolising anger, alerts or danger. This doesn’t mean you should steer clear of the colour altogether; you can use both sides of the colour red and its strong connotations to your advantage.
“If you’re designing an UI or UX interaction, for example, don’t use blue on your Delete button,” says UI and UX designer Aliza Ackerman. “You want a colour that acts like a warning and says, ‘You’re about to delete this. Are you sure you want to do that?’”
Red can help push people to make decisions faster. Almost every fast food brand has red in its colour palette, because red elicits a physical response; it makes people hungrier and stimulates the appetite. Similarly, companies often choose red to announce a sale because it brings urgency to the message.
Orange is bright and full of energy. Happy, playful, fun, powerful and attention-grabbing are all attributes that you can infuse into your brand or message with the colour orange. A lot of tech brands use orange, possibly because it channels the optimism and youthful energy a tech startup might want to convey.
Yellow connotes cheerfulness and adds a pop of refreshment to your palette. “It’s a very strong colour and really draws the eye, so I use it sparingly as an accent colour most of the time,” says Ackerman. Like red, it can also act as a siren for alerts and bold, informational messages.
Green is one of the most versatile colours in the colour wheel, thanks to its widespread use in everyday life. Money, trees, food and traffic lights all use green and the shade of green you choose can convey vastly different messages. Its ties to nature can lend your natural food brand or yoga studio an organic, healthy feel, while a brighter hue is often used in financial applications. “Toned down, it can be really soothing and relaxing, but if it’s a super-vibrant green, it’s more refreshing and energetic,” adds Ackerman.
Blue is calming, soothing and friendly. It’s often a fail-safe, neutral choice and can take on a professional or friendly tone, depending on how you use it. Blue is a trustworthy colour and scores of brands in all industries capitalise on this colour to build a positive image for themselves.
Alternatively, blue can evoke sadness, evidenced in common phrases such as “feeling blue” or “having the blues.” This is partially because blue is on the cold end of the colour spectrum, as opposed to warm colours like red and orange. But again, different shades of blue evoke different emotions; keep this in mind when you choose a palette.
“Purple is a very elegant colour. It signifies loyalty, so any time you want to build trust, the colour purple is a great option,” says Ackerman. In addition to trust, purple is often seen as mysterious. This rich colour is traditionally feminine and also has ancient ties to royalty and luxury.
A colour’s historical implications should by no means dictate how you use it, but you should be aware of how deeply ingrained or even subconscious associations like these can unintentionally alter your message.
“A lot of brands that are geared toward feminine audiences use pink,” says Ackerman. By turns nurturing and playful, pink is a powerful colour that often makes people think of passion, love and youth. An intense hot pink packs more urgency, while a minimal, dusty pink is more calming and neutral.
Pink is a great example of how colour meaning can change with society over time. Once thought of as a “boy” colour, pink is now largely associated with femininity.
White often symbolises simplicity, purity and cleanliness. Often used to give contrast to your designs, white provides a clean, neutral slate that keeps you from crowding your design too much. “It’s there to give breathing room to other elements and to be a background to showcase something you want to bring more attention to,” says Ackerman.
Neutral and natural, brown “has some warmth to it and a feeling of security,” says Ackerman. It’s a very earthy colour that will effortlessly evoke elements from the natural world. If you’re going for an organic, wholesome feel, brown is an excellent colour to include in your palette.
A true neutral shade, grey is almost always used as a secondary colour or accent. It can be used to temper or complement any colour or to serve as a quiet background. Try not to block out your design in all grey, as that can tip the balance from neutral to dreary and boring.
Black is a power colour that adds gravity and strength to your message. Used sparingly, black can help your design look polished and minimal. Black backgrounds are an increasingly popular colour choice in web design, but be careful that it doesn’t make your interface too dark and heavy.
There are certainly occasions where a bold splash of black tells your story like no other can. If you need to add an edge to your design or a sophisticated and serious tone, black is a classic that can’t be beat.
Tips to hone your colour-selection skills.
Different cultures ascribe different meanings to colours.
We like to think of colour as a universal language, but this isn’t always the case. Colours don’t always translate the same across different cultures and countries. “Culturally, in America the colour white symbolises purity, innocence and simplicity. But in China, white is associated with death and people wear white to funerals,” points out Ackerman. If you design for a global audience, look into how other cultures perceive colours to avoid accidentally sending the wrong message.
Shade matters just as much as colour.
There are three elements to colour: Hue, saturation and luminance. When you make a colour palette, the shade and tone of your colour matters just as much as the colour you choose. A dark blue navy is bold, strong and more masculine, while a light blue or baby blue is airy, bright and youthful. When you pick a colour, think of the many different shades it encapsulates and the different moods they create.
Speaking from an UX perspective, Ackerman often opts for softer shades, especially when it comes to black and white. “I go a couple brightness notches down from pure black or white. I always try to use a soft grey or a slightly off-white, because it’s easier on people’s eyes, especially on screens.”
Experiment with colour combinations.
Colours can take on new significance when paired together. Colour combinations can boost your message, detract from it or make a new meaning entirely; the best way to get better at selecting the right palette for the job is to experiment. Try the colour palette generator from Adobe to make your own colour scheme and learn about the relationship between different colour combinations.
High-quality designs start with smart colour theory. Now that you know the psychology behind colours, you’re ready to put the colour wheel to work on some of your own designs.
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