Color meanings and the art of using color symbolism

You see colors in everything around you, every moment of the day—but do you ever stop to think about the impact each of those colors is having on you? Whether it’s the calming effect of blue skies and fields of green, or the saliva-inducing red and yellow of your local fast food chain, each color has a meaning and taps into emotions. There’s a whole science (and art) in the meanings of colors. As an entrepreneur or designer, it’s essential to be aware of these color meanings to help you choose your colors wisely and tap into the magical power of color symbolism.

Colors can be a powerful tool—if you know how to use them. For a business—whether it’s yours or your client’s—there are all sorts of places where color comes into play. You might immediately think of branding elements like the logo, business cards and stationery. Color choices will also be meaningful across online communication and marketing materials: your website, social media, emails, presentations as well as offline tools like flyers and product packaging.

Where do color meanings come from?

Millions of years of biological conditioning have created certain associations between colors and objects or emotions, while some associations may be more recent. Understanding these associations will give you a shortcut to people’s hearts, provoking a specific emotion and maybe even a behavior. Feelings are much more powerful than rational thoughts based on facts and figures and applying color meanings and color symbolism will make your branding efforts and designs much more effective.

Set of coloring pencils

Color meanings stem from psychological effects, biological conditioning and cultural developments. Some color meanings are deeply rooted in our brains because they’re visible all around us, like red as the color of fire being associated with warmth or green with nature. We’re biologically wired to pay attention to bright colors because brightly colored animals or plants are often poisonous. We’re drawn to red fruit over green fruit because the color indicates ripeness and sweetness.

Other colors have developed cultural meaning over time and their meanings have been adopted by society, such as pink as a color for girls and blue for boys in Western cultures (which hasn’t always been the case).

Here are a few things that can have an impact on the meaning of colors:

  • Cultural differences—Red represents good luck in China but in South Africa it’s the color of mourning. Americans associate green with money as that’s the color of dollar bills but that isn’t the case globally. Black is the color of mourning in Western countries, while in some East Asian countries it’s white. In the US green is the color of envy, while in Germany it’s yellow. You’ll need to be sensitive to these differences depending on where you are operating.
  • Time—Colors may also change in significance over time: red used to be seen as a strong, masculine color while blue was a feminine color suited for girls.
  • Shades and tones—A color may have a general meaning, but lighter shades can vary dramatically compared to darker shades, while more natural, muted shades will differ from artificial neon colors. Make sure that you look at the specific associations of the different shades and tones. For example, if you’re using neon green, don’t assume that just because you’ve chosen a shade of green it’s going to be a good fit for an eco-friendly brand. Similarly, a bright magenta will have a totally different meaning from a muted pastel shade of rosé, even if they are both shades of pink.
  • Color combinations—If you’re using more than one color you need to be aware of how color combinations affect the overall meaning. They can enhance each other, make each other pop, blend together or fight with each other. You’ll need to give some thought to their combined meanings and what effect you want to achieve with your combination. Color theory will help you understand the relationships between colors.
meaning of red

What red means:

Red is associated with the heat of energy, passion and love. We “see red” when we’re angry and it’s also the color of blood, power and danger, making it a powerful color in branding. Think of the bold red of a fireman’s truck or the ‘stop’ sign in traffic. Red is also said to stimulate appetite, which is why it’s popular in fast food chains—most famously in McDonald’s, which combines red with another primary color, yellow.

Netflix uses red to attract users to its platform, with red calls-to-action to join or sign in. Another famously red brand is Coca-Cola (and, as the story goes, it was Coke’s marketing campaign that branded Santa Claus red). It will be interesting to see what happens with Coca-Cola’s recent packaging redesign as they move away from that iconic red to match its new Diet Coke flavors with other colors.

How to use it:

Star Fire energy cans

If you have a loud brand and want to stand out, then red could be the color for you. Its high energy makes it a great choice for caffeine drinks, fast cars or sports. With its appetite-stimulating qualities, it’s a good match for restaurants who want to bring in hungry customers. It can also be used as an accent color to draw attention to something on your packaging, or to get visitors to ‘buy it now’ on your website.

Orange is for creativity, youth and enthusiasm

The meaning of orange

What orange means:

As a secondary color, orange combines the warmth and heat of red with the playfulness and joy of yellow. It attracts attention without being as daring as red, and is used for warning signs like traffic cones and high-visibility clothing. It’s an energetic color that can bring to mind health and vitality, given its obvious link to oranges and vitamin C. It’s a youthful color as well, bringing an element of vibrancy and fun.

A good example of using orange to connect with a young audience in a fun way is Nickelodeon. To promote energy and activity, Gatorade uses an orange lightning bolt, while orange is also a popular color for tropical drinks like Fanta. There may be unusual historical reasons behind a brand’s choice of color: luxury brand Hermès chose orange because it was the only paperboard available during World War II! It’s a confident color but not usually associated with luxury.

How to use it:

9 Gorillas logo

Orange can be a great choice for a youthful and creative brand that wants to be a bit different to the mainstream. It’s a friendly color that also stimulates action so, like red, it can be used as an accent color to catch the eye and promote activity.

Yellow is for happiness, hope and spontaneity

The meaning of yellow

What yellow means:

Yellow is the color of the sun, smiley faces and sunflowers. It’s a happy, youthful color, full of hope and positivity. It’s another color that grabs your attention and for that reason can also be used to signify caution, like red and orange.

The golden arches of McDonald’s (well, they’re yellow, really) are a globally recognized symbol that can be seen from far away and immediately gets associated with fast food. In the same way, Best Buy’s yellow tag indicates a reduced cost for its cost-conscious customers (say that quickly three times!).

How to use it:

Uplifting, yellow quinoa packaging design entry by Mila Katagarova.

Cereal bar packaging

This shade of yellow works well for a happy, healthy brand like Why Bar in this packaging by Martis Lupus.

Yellow is a great choice if speed, fun and low cost are attributes that you want associated with your brand. Be careful with different shades, though: a bright yellow will grab people’s attention right away and it’s a useful way of highlighting or accenting a design, a pale or warm yellow can look natural and healthy, while a neon yellow can instead be very artificial.

Green is for nature, growth and harmony—but also wealth and stability

The meaning of green
The meaning of green

What green means:

Green is universally associated with nature, linked as it is to grass, plants and trees. It also represents growth and renewal, being the color of spring and rebirth. Another association is “getting the green light” to go ahead, giving it an association with taking action. In the US, green (and especially dark green) is also associated with money and so represents prosperity and stability.

Green is also often seen as a fourth color on top of the primary red, yellow and blue (think Microsoft and Google), bringing a sense of visual balance and, as a result, a soothing and relaxing influence. Famous brands that use different shades of green include Starbucks, Spotify and Whole Foods Market.

How to use it:

Bamboo cutting board sleeve

The connection to nature makes green a natural choice (see what I did there?) for a brand that’s eco friendly, organic or sustainable. As with yellow, be wary of the fact that while muted or lighter shades of green can represent nature, neon versions will have the opposite effect and will feel more artificial and less harmonious. On a website, a green call to action can suggest ‘go’—although the battle rages on with red buttons, which can instead suggest urgency.

Blue is for calm, trust and intelligence

What blue means:

The meaning of blue
The meaning of blue

Blue is a serene and calming color that represents intelligence and responsibility. Blue is cool and relaxing. Light baby blue is peaceful, while dark blue can signify depth and power. It is the most popular color in the world, both when it comes to personal preferences (for both genders) and usage in business logos. It’s the go-to color for trusted, corporate institutions, often in combination with a mature grey:

  • IT companies e.g. Intel, Microsoft, IBM, HP, Dell
  • Finance institutions e.g. American Express, Visa, Goldman Sachs, Paypal
  • Big corporations e.g. Procter & Gamble, General Electric, General Motors, Boeing and Lowe’s
  • Blue is also the natural choice for professional network LinkedIn.

Interestingly, blue is the color of choice for many other social networks too. Facebook is blue—apparently because founder Mark Zuckerberg is red-green color blind and blue is the most vivid color that he can see. The association with trust and dependability does work well in the context of a social network, with all the concerns around data privacy and so on, and you’ll find that Twitter is also blue, as are Instagram, Russia’s VKontakte and even social media site Mashable.

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