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[Colour Theory] Emotions & Meaning

category: Design | course: Colour Theory | difficulty:

If you don’t know where to start, it is advised to think of the main keywords applicable to your project and find a colour that matches. Every colour has its own meaning, purpose and emotional value. Those are mostly international, but some countries even have special meanings for colours that can make the difference between a gigantic fail and a well thought out design.

These natural responses to certain colours are largely a result of our history and evolution. Properly reacting to colour may have helped our ancestors survive, and much of our reactions to various colours seem to result from our association of these colours with certain specific natural objects. We assume that, because one or two things with a certain colour have certain natural properties, everything with that colour works that way. This is a false generalization, but it's very effective and perceived that way by nearly everyone.

On top of that, colours can inherently contain subjective meanings. People's past experience with a colour, the colour through which objects are often represented, it all contributes to a certain association and understanding of a specific hue. For example, red is associated with blood, fire, and sex; blue is associated with sea, sky, and ice.

I will walk you through all the main colours and explain a bit. Every colour will at the end of its section have a line containing all the keywords, feelings and emotions associated with it.

White

Popular in minimalist designs, gives other colours a larger voice.

White can be used to portray winter or summer, depending on the elements around it.

Usually associated with wedding dresses and health care (dentists, doctors, nurses)

Used to depict angels and heaven.

Keywords: Purity, cleanliness, virtue, innocence, wholeness, completion, openness, light, goodness, heaven, sincerity

Black

The strongest of all colours, has a positive and negative side. For example, sports teams wearing black are often perceived as meaner and more aggressive, while on the other hand black outfits are associated with sophistication, exclusivity, and intrigue.

Depicts power, elegance and formality, but also evil, death, mystery and mourning. It’s, however, also associated with rebellion, the occult and Halloween in some cultures.

Black is often used in edgier, modern designs, and is highly influenced by its surrounding elements. It's Commonly used for typography or other large functional parts because of its extreme neutrality.

Keywords: Mystery, elegance, evil, formality, strength, fear, power, death, aggression, authority, sophistication

Grey

Dark greys can be used in place of black, light greys in place of white.

Normal grey is usually perceived as moody, depressing, cold or the colour of mourning.

Grey is generally used on formal documents, but it can easily be used in a modern design, if formality and professionalism are key.

In web design, grey backgrounds and grey typography is very common.

Keywords: Moody, conservative, formality, emotionless, dirty, formal, sophisticated

Brown

Depending on the saturation and surroundings, brown can be very warm, but also dull or flat.

Commonly used as background colour, and in textures (wood, stone, grainy, old paper).

Can be used with a dark shade as a replacement for black, but that depends on the other elements.

Keywords: Nature, wholesomeness, dependability, relaxation, confidence, durability, comfort, reliability, wood, earth, stone

Beige & Tan

It has the same properties as brown, but contains more grey and white. It is therefore easier to use this as a neutral, but it is also more easily seen as dull.

Usually used in some sort of paper (texture) background, is extremely good at taking on properties of surround elements and therefore usually goes unnoticed in any design.

Keywords: Conservative, piety, dull, neutral, calm, relaxing, crisp, coolness, boring

Cream & Ivory

Contains some of brown’s warmth, but more of white’s good properties.

They usually go unnoticed in a design, convey a sense of history or calm.

Can create elegance and sometimes earthy quality in a design. It can also be used to create soft contrast with darker colours.

Keywords: Calm, elegant purity, neutral, relaxing, pureness, softness, warmth, quiet, pleasantness, elegance

Red

A very hot colour. Associated with fire and violence, but also love and passion. Devil and Cupid. Communism and rebellion.

Associated with danger (traffic lights are red), but also importance (red carpet).

Has many different interpretations outside the western world. In China, it means happiness, prosperity and good luck. In other eastern cultures it’s a common colour to use for weddings. In South Africa, it is the colour mourning. In the whole of Africa, it has become the colour associated with AIDS awareness due to the RED campaign.

It is a powerful accent colour, which means it is overwhelming when used too much (especially in a more pure form). Used when power or passion want to be portrayed.

Red is versatile, which means that brighter tints are more energetic, while darker shades are more powerful and elegant.

It’s even been shown that red has a physical effect on people, raising blood pressure, respiration rates and metabolism. It suppresses your ability to think rationally, and is best used to drive user behaviour or display (urgent) error messages. Women wearin red are often perceived as more attractive, and men wearing red as more dominant. Because of this, avoid using red in educational, objective or performance-based contexts.

Keywords: Passion, love, anger, power, strength, energy, intense, war, danger.

Orange

Associated with earth and autumn, changing of seasons, and change and movement in general.

Means health and vitality, and draws attention without being as powerful as red. Considered friendly, inviting and a bridge between colourful hues and warm neutrals.

Keywords: Energy, happiness, vitality, cheerfulness, creativity, warmth, enthusiasm, success, autumn, stimulating

Yellow

Mostly associated with joy, sunshine and extreme happiness and brightness. It's also often associated with sales, deals, prices, or other positive commercial designs.

Also means danger, but is used more as a slight warning or comment, whereas red is more urgent. It's therefore used to call attention to notes or messages which aren't necessarely urgent, and it's also the default colour for highlighting.

In Egypt, yellow represents mourning. Japan uses it to portray courage, while it’s a colour for merchants in India. Throughout the world, it is used as a symbol of hope (think of yellow ribbons for loved ones at war).

Soft yellows are used as gender-neutral colour for babies or (young) children. They give more of a calm or happy feeling than bright yellows. Dark (or gold-like) yellows can look antique and display a sense of permanence.

Keywords: Happiness, hope, deceit, energy, happiness, liveliness, curiosity, intelligence, brightness, sunshine, joy, attention getter

Green

Means down-to-earth, the start of a new beginning. This means it also portrays lack of experience, envy or jealousy. Is the general colour used when the design has something to do with money. It's also seen as a mark of progress, an indication that a product has a certain feature or component, and a postive colour for call-to-action buttons.

It is calming, in much the same way as blue. But the fact that it has yellow included means it is more balanced, harmonizing, stable and energetic.

Bright greens are vibrant and full of energy, olive greens are more representative of the natural world, while dark greens are the most stable and give a sense of wealth.

Keywords: Harmony, life, help, new beginnings, abundance, nature, balance, harmony, safety, freshness, healing, fertility, growth

Blue

Associated with sadness and calmness, but also peace, spirituality and religions.

Light blues are friendly, relaxed and nature-like.

Bright blues are energizing and refreshing.

Dark blues are stronger and more reliable, excellent for corporate websites or designs. Dark blue, however, is also the standard colour for links on the internet, which means you should refrain from using it for anything else, unless your colour palette is bursting with blue.

In psychological terms, blue is the opposite of red. It boosts creativity and enhances performance, often leading to a greater trustworthiness of a design.

Keywords: Calm, responsible, sadness, patience, peace, trustworthiness, stability, professionalism, honour, tranquil, masculine, sky, sea

Purple

Mostly associated with royalty, creativity and imagination.

Thailand uses it as the colour for mourning.

Dark purples are reserved for wealth, royalty and luxury. Light versions are more romantic and seem more colourful. Often they are also associated with softness, spring and dreams.

Keywords: Creativity, royalty, wealth, power, ability, wisdom, nobility, luxury, ambition, mystery

Pink

Pink is usually seen as the colour for (little) girls, and sweetness (sugar, spice, everything nice). It has the same good properties as red, but not the bad ones because of its softness.

While red creates physical awareness and strength, pink can create physical weakness. It represents love, charm and romance.

Bright pink communicates playfulness, light pink tenderness.

Keywords: Romance, passivity, care, peace, affection, softness

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