Color symbolism is the use of color to represent traditional, cultural, or religious ideas, concepts, or feelings or to evoke physical reactions.
Jump right to one of the colors or color groups I cover in detail or scroll past the color list for more general discussion of color meanings and how color works.
- List of Individual Colors (further down this page)
- Just the Cool Calming Colors
- Just the Warm Exciting Colors
- The Intriguing Mixed Cool/Warm Colors
- Just the Neutral Background Colors
In desktop publishing and design choosing color based on its symbolism applies to print and electronic projects from logos to Web site backgrounds.
Colors are more than a combination of red and blue or yellow and black. They are non-verbal communication. They have meaning that goes beyond ink.
|Explore Individual Color Meanings|
|Blue||(plus azure | beryl | cerulean | cobalt | corporate blue | indigo | navy | sapphire)|
|Purple||(plus lilac | plum | violet)|
|Red||(plus blood red | crimson | scarlet | vermilion)|
|More colors added periodically.|
Please note that while color symbolism applies to colors wherever they are used, this series of articles on color meanings focuses primarily on the use of color in print and Web projects for desktop publishing and graphic design. While some scientific studies are noted, there are no absolutes. Color preferences and meanings are personal and subjective and no one size or situation fits all.
As you design brochures, logos, and Web sites, it is helpful to keep in mind how the eye and the mind perceive certain colors and the symbolism we associate with each one.
Physical and Cultural Reactions
Sometimes colors create a physical reaction (red has been shown to raise blood pressure) and at other times it is a cultural reaction (in the U.S. white is for weddings, in some Eastern cultures, white is the color for mourning and funerals). Colors follow trends as well. Avocado, a shade of green, is synonymous with the 60s and 70s in the minds of some consumers.
In addition to understanding symbolism, it helps with mixing and matching colors to know the relationship of adjacent, harmonizing, contrasting, and complementary colors. The subject is more fully explained in this Color Basics article. But below is a brief synopis*:
- Adjacent or harmonizing colors appear next to each other on the color wheel. Harmonizing colors often work well together but if too close in value they can appear washed out or not have enough contrast. A harmonizing trio could be something like blue, light blue, and cyan or perhaps red, orange, and yellow.
- Contrasting colors are separated from each other by other colors — they come from different segments of the color wheel. The further apart, the more the contrast. Red (from the warm half of the color wheel) contrasts with green and blue (from the cool half of the wheel). Shades of purple contrast with shades of green. Contrasting colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel may be described as clashing colors — see the description for complementary. Despite the name, colors that clash are not always a bad combination if used carefully. They provide great contrast and high visibility.
- Complementary colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel — they are each half of a pair of contrasting colors. For example, blue is a complementary color to yellow. Green is complementary to purple and magenta. A pair of complementary colors printed side by side can sometimes cause visual vibration (clash) making them a less than desirable combination. However, separate them on the page with other colors and they can work together. Note the spelling. These are not complimentary colors. They don't always flatter (compliment) one another but they do complete (complement) each other.
*It is important to note that this discussion of color is specifically about the selection of colors for use in graphic design projects. It uses examples and definitions that may not be absolutely precise from a scientific color theory perspective. For example, complementary colors in graphic design do not have to be colors that are directly across from each other in the color wheel. Some wiggle room or variance is acceptable in the subjective selection of colors and color palettes.
On each of the cool, warm, mixed, and neutral pages are links to profiles of specific groups of colors with descriptions of their nature, cultural color meanings, how to use each color in design work, and which colors work best together.
On the next few pages we'll explore the color meanings of four different groups of colors.
- Cool (calming): Blue, Green, Turquoise, Silver
- Warm (exciting): Red, Pink, Yellow, Gold, Orange
- Mixed Cool/Warm: Purple, Lavender, Green, Turquoise
- Neutral (unifying): Brown, Beige, Ivory, Gray, Black, White
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