Colour is a powerful and important communication tool, and it is tied to religious, cultural, political and social influences.
By stopping to consider what each colour represents and is linked to in the ‘real world’ we can make informed design decisions that ensure we appeal to our target audience. Without this consideration we run the risk of offending the very people were are designing for.
[Notice: Learn more about colour and design processes at The Future of Web Design New York City on Nov 16-17]
#1 It Affects your Mood
Most of us have a favourite colour or prefer some colours over others. This is because can affect our moods so we surround ourselves in the colours that have a positive impact on our mood.
Red can boost your energy, yellow often makes people feel happier, and blue is proven to bring down blood pressure and slow your heart rate which is why it is often associated with being relaxing. If you combine the happiness of yellow and the relaxing feel of blue you get green, a very pleasing colour for many people.
Mental health units are known to use pastel tones on their walls so that patients feel calm, happy, and relaxed. Walls that are beige with a pink tint combined with mint green floors are a popular combination as it is said to create a soothing, harmonious and calm area. At the other end of the spectrum, literally, schools tend to user bright colours that appeal to children.
When choosing colours for your next design it is important to consider how they will combine and sit with the other elements on the page and what impact that will have on the mood of your audience.
#2 Colours Communicate Invisibly
Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first pioneers of colour theory. A renowned Russian painter and art theorist, he is often considered the founder of abstract art. Kandinsky believed the following colours communicate the following qualities:
- Yellow – warm, exciting, happy
- Blue – deep, peaceful, supernatural
- Green – peace, stillness, nature
- White – harmony, silence, cleanliness
- Black – grief, dark, unknown
- Red – glowing, confidence, alive
- Orange – radiant, healthy, serious
#3 Colour has Cultural Significance
Different colours mean different things in different places. This is extremely important for designers to know because without an awareness of the cultural significance of a particular colour, you risk offending your entire target audience.
Purple for example is a colour of mourning in Thailand. In western culture however, it is associated with royalty, luxury, wealth and sometimes magic. The brand colour for Thai Airways is purple. On first glance this seems like a huge error on their part because as mentioned above, purple is a colour of mourning in Thailand.
It is most likely however, that the Thai Airways website isn’t aimed at locals but at tourists, therefore if westerners view the site and see purple it will associate Thai Airways with values such as luxury and comfort.
Other examples are:
- In western cultures black is a colour of mourning
- In Japan however it is a colour of honour, with white the colour of mourning
- Red in the west represents danger, love, passion
- In India it is a colour of purity, in China it is a colour of good luck and in South Africa it is a colour of mourning
- Yellow represents courage in Japan, mourning in Egypt and hope in the West
#4 Colour can be Inspired by our Surroundings
We live in a colourful world, a world that acts as the perfect inspirational trigger for design. The best thing about looking to the environment for design solutions is that the palette is always changing, from autumnal oranges to cold winter blues. So where better to look than out of your window, take in the colours and then apply them to your designs.
Drawing inspiration from nature for your designs also makes you look at the world differently. Normally we whiz by from place to place but you notice the finer details and undiscovered gems when you actually stop to take it in.
#5 Colour has Political Associations
Individual political parties are associated with one colour or another. Depending on whom your audience is, this might prove to be valuable information when designing.
The association between political parties and colours isn’t a new connection but it is often taken for granted. In the UK for example the following pairings exist:
- Labour – Red
- Conservative – Blue
- Liberal Democrats – Yellow
- The Green Party – Green
If a colour is representative of a political party then the values and behaviours that the party is known for can be suggested through the use of this colour.
- Red is often linked to socialism and communism
- White has links to pacifism and the surrender flag. In contrast to this, black is a colour that is used in conjunction with anarchism.
- Working class Nazism is associated with the colour brown as the SA were known as the ‘brownshirts’.
A design with one of these colours as the dominant shade may well hint at a right wing or a left wing preference or at extreme behaviours.
#6 Religion can be Linked to Colours
As with politics, colours are representative of certain religions. So as not to unintentionally offend anyone through your designs, some examples of these colour/religion associations are:
- Green is considered to be the holy colour of Islam
- Judaism is represented by the colour yellow
- In Hinduism, many gods have blue skin
- White is linked to peace across many religions
Again this may only be necessary information if you are designing a site that has specific links to religion but it also emphasises that a thorough knowledge of your audience is a fundamental part of the design process.
#7 Age Affects People’s Colour Preferences
Colour expert Faber Birren carried out many studies into this area and in his book Color Psychology and ColorTherapy, he states that for both genders, blue and red “maintain a high preference throughout life”. He found that yellow is popular with children but as become move into adulthood it shows less popularity. Birren found that “with maturity comes a greater liking for hues of shorter wave length (blue, green, purple) than for hues of longer wave length (red, orange, and yellow)”
Another factor that influences people’s colour preferences is that throughout their life there will be social and cultural changes and this can directly impact on their favourite colours. Some knowledge of what colours certain age ranges prefer can be valuable for designers. If you were designing a website for a toy store or a children’s TV channel, then knowing they prefer bright colours and yellow in particular would help with your design decisions.
Likewise, if you designed a website for a charity whereby the audience was to be the older generation then blue, green or purple might be ideal, based on Birren’s findings.
Colour is a complex subject with many strands and it has the power to subliminally convey values and stories. Please share your thoughts and opinions about colour, in the comments below.
A lot of psychologists have studied the psychological significance of color preferences. There are many sites on this subject that can be googled. The first one on the Google list if you type in "Psychological Significance of Colors" is "Meaning of Colors in Color Psychology." Many of the people who answered your question have specified that they favor purple. This is an excerpt from what that entry says about purple:
This color relates to the imagination and spirituality. It stimulates the imagination and inspires high ideals. It is an introspective color, allowing us to get in touch with our deeper thoughts.
Most of the people who responded to this question were females. Women seem much more sensitive to colors than men. Also a lot harder to satisfy. Personally I have found that colors bug me. In fairly recent years the clothing merchants have tried to get men more interested in choosing colors, but I have found it frustrating and annoying. If I buy a brown shirt then I can't wear it with a pair of blue pants, so I need a pair of brown pants. But then I can't wear brown pants with a black belt or black shoes. And of course if I wear brown pants I can't have a brown shirt of the same shade or I would like like a deliveryman in uniform; so I have to wear, like, brown pants with a tan shirt, or tan pants with a brown shirt. Women have to have several purses and many pairs of shoes, and it must take them a long time to be sure that everything matches everything else. But I think they like shopping and choosing clothes and even taking things home and bringing them back to the store if they decide they really don't like them.
I don't want to spend any time or mental energy choosing shirt, shoes, pants, jacket, etc., and then have to go through the same thing the next day. I have decided to wear nothing but brown and tan as well as anything that will go with brown and tan, such as shades of red or just plain white. I don't want to think about it. I would like to be able to pull things out of the drawer and the closet and put them on knowing that whatever I had would match.
I read that Alfred Hitchcock owned twelve black suits, twelve white shirts, and several identical black neckties and several identical pairs of black shoes. That sounds pretty extreme, but I can sympathize with him. Any time you see a photograph of him he is sure to be wearing a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie.
Mark Twain decided that he liked a white suit, so he had a tailor make up about a dozen identical white suits, and he is wearing all white in any picture of him you are likely to see.
I have occasionally asked myself what my favorite color is. I still don't know. Green is a good color--for grass and trees. But I would never own a green car, or a purple one.