Colour has meaning – there is no denying this fact.
If you don’t believe me then head out and try and find a green stop sign, a blue fire truck or how about send out pink announcement cards on the birth of a baby boy?
A lot of colour associations are derived from the commercial marketplace, but this isn’t the only place that they come from. The meaning of colours also originate from countries, cities, schools, sports teams, street gangs, companies big and small – they all have signature colours.
The use of colour can make or break a design. It is also very important to know your target market because if it includes a culture other than the Western World, you need to understand that their meaning of colour can be vastly different to our meaning of colour…
Red is traditionally known to us as the danger and passion colour. It’s the colour of blood and fire but is also associated with energy, danger, strength, power, love and desire.
Fire engines, ambulances, stop signs and red traffic lights all indicate elements of danger. It is bright and vibrant and hard to miss. The colour of love, red hearts and long stemmed red roses, the colour oozes sexuality with images of women in red stilettos and red lipstick. Red sports cars are both a passion and danger sign. In fact, red cars are prohibited in Brazil as statistics show that despite the colour’s high visibility, more red cars are involved in accidents than any other colour.
In Asia red is the colour for summer, good luck, joy, good fortune and fertility. It is the traditional colour for a wedding dress. Red also has a very strong connection with Communist China.
In Africa red is the colour that Chiefs in Nigeria wear but is also very strongly associated with death and bloodshed. In countries like Ghana it is worn while in mourning and in Madagascar it is used for burial cloths.
Yellow is the sunshine colour – it’s generally associated with joy, energy, intellect and food. It is the most visible colour from a distance. Sadly good design is often compromised for this fact. Yellow to its detriment can seem cheap. When overused, yellow can have a disturbing effect for example it’s a known fact that babies cry more in yellow rooms.
It is a cautionary colour often used in life vests, tape to cordon off police investigation areas and used with alternating black and yellow stripes indicates a hazardous area. For the most part yellow is considered to be a happy colour, warm, welcoming, spontaneous, aspiring and exhilarating. Do keep in mind that in the English language yellow has negative connotations of a coward and that in journalism yellow means biased and inflammatory news reporting.
In Asia yellow is the colour symbol for earth (maybe due to the colour of their soil). For several centuries yellow was reserved exclusively for the Imperial family and still carries the echo of power and royalty. Yellow is also the colour of joy, happiness, high spirits and sunshine.
Blue is the favourite colour for companies and organisations who wish to convey their reliability and trustworthiness – ‘True Blue’. Although it is a bit cold, stiff and unexciting, blue indicates quality, value, strength and authority. Dark blue is the colour of officialdom – police uniforms, surgery scrubs etc. Dark blue suits are often also worn in business by high powered individuals with terms such as blue chip, blue ribbon and blue bloody.
In America, blue is the colour of the study of philosophy. On the flip side blue is a ‘sad’ colour – singing the blues, blue humour and having the blues.
In Asia blue signifies the sky and water – it has positive associations and is often used in decoration. Water is considered a feminine aspect of nature and in the Chinese language blue is described as shallow and deep rather than light and dark.
Green is the colour of money and nature. It is the ‘go’ colour as in the green traffic light. Newly a symbol for environmentalism, green has always been linked to forests, crops growth and harvest. Dark green is considered to be outdoorsy and masculine – a favourite colour for cars. In food, green symbolises freshness, health and mint flavour. As green gets lighter it becomes less appealing. As it heads towards more yellow tones, it resembles bile, slime and disease. Due to its calming nature, a flat, grayish green – dubbed “institutional green” has become the unofficial colour for the hallways in schools, underfunded municipalities and poor neighbourhoods. Negative connotations towards the colour green are envy, jealousy and inexperience.
In Asia green is closely linked with jade and recalls it’s value and desirability. Green represents plants, crops and spring. It is the colour for birth and youth and implies exuberance and enthusiasm.
In Africa green symbolises fertility.
Black is traditionally linked to death, despair, morbidity, evil, sin and negation. The black hole in outer space is a metaphor for absolute nothingness. Black does however command respect, it is meant to be taken seriously. It is the colour worn by nuns and clergy. Black means business and can also be perennially chic, sophisticated, dramatic and extremely formal. Due to its lack of colour, the texture of black can take on different meanings. A matte black surface can imply something sturdy, industrial and high tech while gloss black is sleek and powerful with a hint of danger or malevolence. Black also tends to be sexy.
In Asia, black is the symbol colour for water so it carries impressions of depth, truth, life and stability. Black has little religious significance but does represent darkness, mystery and the unknown.
In Africa black implies age, maturity and spirituality.
White has many paradoxical connotations, for example in Western culture it can mean clean, pure, peace, elegant, perfect and sanitary while on the other hand it can also symbolise ghostly, antiseptic, empty, boring and unfinished. White is the academic colour of the arts and conjours images of a newly painted room, blank canvas and clean sheets. White means new, fresh and ready to go.
In Asia white is the colour for death and mourning, it is also considered pure and neutral.
In Africa white is the colour for victory or purity and is worn by girls for puberty rites.
There are so many different colours in the colour spectrum and with limited space I have just taken the top 6 (although white and black aren’t technically colours!). Please also be aware that different tones of each colour can have different meanings as well (I will cover this in another post) and this is just a brief overview on colour in general. It is also supposed to highlight how different cultures read different meanings into colours and that you should be aware of this fact.
I hope you have found the meaning of colour in culture interesting and helpful. If you are curious about the meaning of shapes or brand personalities – all elements of the psychology of branding, please find out more about the Psychology of Branding by enrolling in our online short course.
Written by branding specialist Debbie O’Connor
Consultant, Strategist, Keynote Speaker