COLOR THEORY AND MEANING

There’s no disputing the power of color. It helps us identify, sort, and process images faster than we even realize. Additionally, it has the ability to make us have certain thoughts and feelings, whether we want to or not. Learning and understanding color theory helps us to make sense of things, and, in turn, allows us to use color in our work to elicit certain reactions, thoughts, and feelings from others.

THE ELECTROMAGNETIC SPECTRUM

Let’s start by looking at a little of the science behind color. As strange as it might seem, visible light - and by extension, all color - is only a fraction of what is called the Electromagnetic Spectrum. This spectrum also includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, gamma rays, and more. If it makes this any easier to understand, you might think of light as just another type of ‘electromagnetic radiation’.

Without getting into it too much, basically what differentiates the types of electromagnetic radiation is the wavelength. Visible light is spread along the electromagnetic spectrum in the same order that we visualize a rainbow - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The color red has the longest wavelength, the lowest frequency, and the lowest total energy. Violet has the shortest wavelength, the highest frequency, and the highest total energy. Ultraviolet (UV) rays are just outside the visible light spectrum, and are to blame for sunburns.

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MEANING THROUGH ASSOCIATION

Much of how we perceive color meaning is through association of when and where we see those colors used. This ranges from the simple idea of natural associations to more flexible and abstract ideas of cultural and societal associations.

NATURAL ASSOCIATIONS

The idea of natural association is that a color becomes related to how we experience it in nature. The simplest and most natural associations we can make are relating the color blue to the sky and water, and the color green to plants and vegetation.

CULTURAL AND SOCIETAL ASSOCIATIONS

Cultural and societal associations are usually some extension of a natural association. We associate water with the color blue, and by extension we associate the adjective ‘cool’ with the color blue as well. This is a simple association that seemingly all cultures and societies can agree on.

Color associations become trickier once you start relating them to the use of color in specific cultures and societies. The associations are still entirely valid, but you have to keep in mind that someone on the other side of the world might not make these same sorts of associations. For instance, the color red is a prominent color of luck in many Eastern cultures, and is prominently displayed at cultural festivals, whereas the color green is seen as the luckiest color in Western cultures.

Another example: the saying “to be blue” means sad or depressed in the US, but in Germany it means to be drunk.

SHADES

Any given color might take on different associations when looking at various shades of that color. Light green will likely make one think of plant life, while dark green will make many people think of money.

AMOUNT OF COLOR

Accents of color relay a different message than large amounts of color.

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SHAPES

The same color displayed in different shapes can send different messages.

What does a yellow circle make you think of?

What about a yellow triangle?

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PAIRS AND SCHEMES

Certain color combinations have such strong associations that it’s hard to use those color combinations without a viewer immediately associating it with something else.

What do you think of when you see the combination of black and orange?

What about red and green?

THE COLOR CIRCLE, OR color WHEEL

We’ve all seen this before, where the hues are arranged in a circle, usually with white or black at the center. The first color circle was attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, who in the mid-1600’s was working with light when he discovered its prismatic nature. He was the one who decided to split the spectrum into 7 groups - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet - because he wanted them to line up with a musical scale going from D to D (otherwise indigo and violet would surely be consolidated into purple). Newton designed the color wheel because he thought that all colors were created using combinations of red light, yellow light, and blue light. We now know that to be incorrect - all colors are created from combinations of red light, green light, and blue light - but the color wheel maintains significant value to designers, due to its spatial nature of presentation, which is especially helpful when designing color schemes.

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THE PRIMARY COLORS

The primary colors are the three that Newton first asserted were the bases of all other colors: red, yellow, and blue. While these aren’t technically the bases for all other colors, it’s certainly easy to imagine them being the three stable bases from which all other colors are formed through some combination.

On the color wheel, the primary colors form an equilateral triangle.

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THE SECONDARY COLORS

The theoretical blends of the primary colors, the secondary colors are: orange, green, and purple. Orange is the blend of red and yellow, green is of yellow and blue, and purple of blue and red.

The secondary colors also form an equilateral triangle on the color wheel, but their triangle is offset from the primary color triangle by 60 degrees.

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TERTIARY COLORS

Tertiary colors are formed by combining the primary colors with the secondary colors. There are six tertiary colors: red-orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blue-purple (indigo), and purple-red (violet).

COLOR RELATIONSHIPS

When using colors together to create schemes, there are ways to gauge how well colors work together, aesthetically.

COLOR BALANCE

This is the balance between hues, regarding how frequently and heavily they are used in a design, compared to the other colors in the scheme.

COLOR CONTRAST

This is how different the hues used are, and how much visual contrast they have when used in proximity to one another. Colors that are further apart on the color circle have higher color contrast.

COLOR HARMONY

How colors interact and whether they feel pleasant (cohesive) as a scheme. Color Harmony is fairly subjective, but certain combinations of hues lend themselves to more harmony than others. A color scheme with harmony with have good visual interest while also feeling like it has order. You can think of harmony like a song; it shouldn’t have every instrument or note, but only a select few presented in a pleasant order.

RELATIVE PERCEPTION

Colors can look and feel very different when used in proximity to certain other colors.

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TYPES OF COLOR SCHEMES

There are many general types of color schemes that designers use. Here are a few.

MONOCHROMATIC SCHEME

Contrary to popular belief, ‘monochromatic’ does not mean ‘black and white’ (which itself is a misnomer, actually meaning greyscale), but rather any palette that only contains various shades of a single color. This makes total sense when you break down the word: ‘mono’ meaning one, and ‘chroma’ meaning color.

Monochromatic palettes might utilize different saturations or lightnesses of any given hue.

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Any monochromatic palette will inherently feel like it has perfect balance. There is no struggle to determine the primary color of meaning.

That being said, monochromatic designs will have no color contrast, and likely no substantial harmony.

ANALOGOUS SCHEME

An analogous palette, like a monochromatic palette, has one central hue. The difference is that analogous palettes also incorporate hues that are adjacent to the primary hue on each side.

For instance, a palette of purple, red, and orange is a red-centric analogous palette.

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The advantage of the analogous palette is that it has more variety, and thus more color contrast, than a monochromatic palette. The disadvantage is that it won’t have the balance that a monochromatic palette does. This becomes increasingly true the further away the hues are from the central hue.

In short, the further away the analogous hues are, the more color contrast it will have, but the less balance it will have, and vice versa.

COMPLEMENTARY SCHEME

In a complementary scheme, the two primary hues are opposite each other on the color circle. Simple examples of this are red-green, yellow-purple, and blue-orange.

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Complementary schemes have the most color contrast of any scheme.

For slightly more variety, one can use analogous colors of the complementary side of the color circle. This somewhat reduces color contrast for the sake of having a more diverse palette.

TRIADIC SCHEME

A triadic scheme is one where your palette consists of colors that form a triangle on the color circle. These might be the primary colors, secondary colors, or some set of tertiary colors.

Due to their position on the color circle, most triadic schemes feel rather harmonious.

COLOR MEANINGS?

Below we’ll take a look at a few colors, and what these colors are purported to ‘mean’ in Western culture.

The colors we’ll look at are the primary colors, secondary colors, black, white, and grey.

RED

Fire, blood, and roses. These are some of the most common natural associations of the color red. It’s from here that many other associations attach themselves.

  • Power

  • Heat

  • Spicy

  • Wrong

  • Deficit

  • Danger

  • Anger

  • Violence

  • War

  • Passion

  • Love

  • Desire

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These meanings are reflected in prominent uses of the color red on fire engines and stop signs, as well as the use of the word in terms like ‘red district’. Take your pick on the associations made with the last one.

Fun fact: Red is the most common color in national flags, beating out all other colors, including white.

ORANGE

Oranges and pumpkins are the most prominent natural associations of the color orange. While not entirely common, orange is an attention grabbing and positive color.

  • Healthy

  • Energy

  • Warmth

  • Tropical

  • Joy

  • Autumn

  • Harvest

  • Halloween

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Hunting vests and prison uniforms are a bright red-orange, due to the color contrast this has against blue and green, the most common natural colors. Red and orange are also some of the most visible colors to the human eye.

Fun fact: The color orange is named after the fruit. Before the color was widely known as ‘orange’, orange objects would either be called saffron or red. The idea of ‘red hair’ was adopted before orange was a thing, and apparently no one has cared enough to change it.

YELLOW

Sunflowers, bumblebees, egg yolks, lemons, and urine: These are the most natural associations of the color yellow, so it’s no wonder this is such a confusing color when it comes to meaning. Many consider blue to be the most self-conflicted color, but I personally find the meanings associated with yellow to be some of the most dissonant.

  • Sunshine

  • Energy

  • Freshness

  • Warmth

  • Happiness

  • Caution

  • Illness

  • Cowardice

  • Madness

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Yellow is an extremely reflective color, and is supposedly the most visible. Over time, yellow has been associated with the gods, and has also been used to label traitors and Jews (during both the Middle Ages and World War II). There are also interesting myths about yellow, such as:

  • Babies supposedly cry more in yellow rooms.

  • Yellow kitchens lead to more domestic disputes.

GREEN

Green is the color of life: grass, leaves, and vegetables. Through this, many positive associations are made with the color green:

  • Growth

  • Earthy

  • Ecological (Eco-Friendly)

  • New

  • Inexperienced

  • Youth

  • Fertility

  • Healing

  • Luck

  • Good

  • Peace

  • Positivity

  • Progress

  • Go

  • Nausea

  • Envy

  • Greed

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The term ‘green with envy’ is thought to be a very old saying, but the association of greed with the color green is almost always accompanied by visuals of American money.

Fun fact: Although the history is unclear, one of the Celtic fertility gods was covered in green leaves, and is known today as The Green Man. Because of this, Celtic brides would commonly wear green wedding dresses. Christians later banned the color green due to this association, while simultaneously appropriating the iconography of The Green Man in many churches across Europe.

BLUE

Blue is the color of the sky and large bodies of water. These natural associations make sense of many of the ‘meanings’ behind the color blue.

  • Clear

  • Cool

  • Clean

  • Wet

  • Deep

  • Stable

  • Conscious

  • Wise

  • Truth

  • Peace

  • Faith

  • Heaven

  • Strong

  • Confident

  • Slow

  • Calm

  • Depression

  • Sadness

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While many consider the associations of the color blue to be disjointed, I think there’s a logical path from calm to depressed. After all, depressants are drugs that slow you down.

Most of the associations of the color blue are positive, however, which is probably why blue is the most common ‘favorite color’ in the world. And that fact is probably why blue is also the most common color in corporate marketing.

PURPLE

Purple is exceedingly rare in nature, which is probably why it has such lofty associations.

  • Royalty

  • Nobility

  • Luxury

  • Wealth

  • Power

  • Intelligence

  • Wisdom

  • Creativity

  • Mystery

  • Spirituality

  • Supernatural

  • Magic

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Purple’s scarcity in nature carries through to culture and society, with purple not having any day-to-day associations to speak of. Other than Barney and Tinky Winky, of course.

Fun fact: Only two nations have purple on their flag: Dominica and Nicaragua.

BLACK

Black is the color of night, or the absence of light. This simple association carries a lot with it.

  • Space

  • Depth

  • Void

  • Mystery

  • Unknown

  • Fear

  • Death

  • Grief

  • Evil

  • Power

  • Authority

  • Formality

  • Elegance

  • Wealth

  • Profit

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WHITE

The color of snow and milk, white is a color that hinges on the idea of being pure.

  • Light

  • Heaven

  • Faith

  • Perfection

  • Pure

  • Innocence

  • Good

  • Positivity

  • Safety

  • Healthy

  • Fresh

  • Cool

  • New

  • Clean

  • Simplicity

  • Luxury

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GREY

Grey is the color of the middle man. It has no inherent association of color, yet it resides between the extremes of black and white.

  • Detached

  • Indecisiveness

  • Compromise

  • Neutral

  • Stability

  • Composure

  • Unemotional

  • Conservative

  • Drab

  • Formal

  • Dignified

  • Maturity

  • Old Age

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Grey, and by extension silver, are colors that can take on many different feelings, depending on their lightness and tint. Light greys are dynamic and enlightening. Dark greys are mysterious and captivating. True greys won’t have any saturation, and thus no tint, but if one is to be flexible in the idea of what they consider grey, then greys with a slight tint of color can take on many combined attributes of the colors involved.

AT THE END OF THE (CLASS) DAY

There is still a lot of intangible, subjective aspects to how we experience color, and perhaps there always will be.

Food for thought: Is all color ‘meaning’ through association, or is it possible that there are scientific, psychological factors at play, too?