The meaning of colours in life, business and design

Aug 12, 2016 · 6 min read

The psychology of colours. In design, colours matter more than you think. The importance of colours in branding. Men's and women’s favourite and least favourite colours. The meaning of colours. You get the drift.

The meaning of colours in life, business and design -- Mervi Emilia

If you have a blog or run a business, you have by now read all the articles and seen all those infographics about colour psychology. You know that red conveys excitement, passion, maybe anger. You are well aware that orange is the colour of warmth and joy, and it's the colour of profitability and drawing attention. Blue is all about trust and strength and green is the colour of health, growth and nature. Or is green the colour of money? Pink is for girls, blue is for boys (though they used not to be). With a closer inspection, you'll notice that most of the emotions and meanings applied to one colour as well apply to another, or even multiple colours. Depending on who tells you about it, who has put the infographic together or wrote that article.

Color is not verbal or rational. It’s contextual and emotional. It’s powerful, not meaningful.
Valot, Antoine. Nine Nasty UX Truths. Retrieved Aug 12 2016.

At this point it's good to bring in the colour blindness. Once a guy with red-green colour-blindness had dressed into an outfit that consisted "red pants". He asked his girlfriend if the outfit is a match, or if the colours clash. The girlfriend pointed out that he was wearing all grey. His "red pants" were grey. Red-green, while the most common, is only one of the form of colour blindnesses. For colourblind your highly meditated and researched colour psychology isn't necessarily working. Relying on colour to convey your message is futile. If you are unsure about how your design, such as website, brand colours or other, appears to people with different types of colour blindness, try one of the many free simulators available online.

"But most people have normal colour vision, don't they?" Sure. Then again, question of what is normal colour vision isn't that easy. Years ago I had a conversation with my partner. We were talking, from our memories, about someone's car. My partner said the car was blue. I said it was green. I guess it was this muted, slightly greenish blue. In my memory, it was green, in his memory it was blue. We were both wrong about the colour, me a bit more than him. This isn't the first nor the last time when I've been involved or hearing about an argument over if something is green or blue.

Your perception of colours could differ from my perception. The way colours are seen is possibly distinct, even between people who have normal colour vision. Some people have a heightened sensitivity to colours, known as tetrachromacy. There was even a study which claimed that colour perception changes with sadness. The paper was later retracted due some errors in it. Still, could emotions affect the way you perceive colours, as well as colours affect emotions? No person is born with an emotional response to colours. The emotional response is learned, through what we are told and our own experiences. While to someone colour red is angry, to another it is happy or even means trustworthiness.

As mentioned before, pink is usually considered as the colour of girls and blue the colour of boys. Yet it hasn't always been like that. Any red-related colours, including pink, used to be considered too strong for fragile females. Light blue, that was the colour for girls. I recall a mother telling about how she used to dress her daughter to red in late '60s and early '70s. She considered herself radical for doing so. Thus the colour psychology isn't somehow universal. Not even the earthlings have same emotions tied to same colours. In different countries colours mean different things. Blue is often claimed to be the safest colour, because the cultural perceptions to it are usually positive. Except if you are feeling blue. In Finland blue and white combination has nationalistic vibes, with the Finnish flag being a blue cross over white background. Recent years the racists have taken the flag as their own emblem, as a sign of "us" against "them". In a recent discussion over at Instagram I was told by a person from Pakistan that in her culture green and white represent purity, while I've used to see green as the colour of nature and growth. Additionally you can be green of jealousy or green can present infidelity. When we add all the different tones, shades and hues of colours things get even more complicated. A bright yellow could be fun and pretty, but with slight changes to the tone you can turn it gross or ugly.

In web design the colours gets muddy, not only because of different colour perceptions, colour blindness, or culture, but also because of the differences in devices and screens. Even the angle from which you are viewing the screen of the device is distorting the colours. While writing this article I was viewing a site showing the colour orange. I had pushed my laptop screen slightly backwards and viewing the colour from that angle I was sure it was red. Until I adjusted my screen and saw it was orange. The different screens of all the various devices may be calibrated differently, which makes them show the colours in diverse ways. Not to mention the brightness settings, the contrast and the surrounding light. All of these change the way you see the colours of a website. Recently I've noticed a trend in web design of using pastel coloured text on white background. Any web designer with experience and knowledge wouldn't do this, because they know that contrast matters. While it may look pretty and cute for you to present your blog content in beige, it is very difficult to read and may even cause a headache to anyone trying to do so. Colour contrast can be tested with free online tools, in case you are unsure if pink text on white background is a good idea. Rather than getting into the details of which colour means what, think about the contrasts and how consistently your colours are representing stuff like clickable text or buttons or such.

Getting obsessed with colours is lazy design and lazy branding. While colours can be powerful they don't have the same meanings for everyone. And you know what, after a while they don't matter that much. Do you remember when Spofity changed it's green to another green? Everyone complained, me included. I liked the old green, it was brighter and more fresh. But to be quite honest, no after a year, I had to check what the old green and compare it to the new one. Why? Because I had grown used to the new green. It didn't matter anymore. Or more recently, when Instagram switched from the brownish camera to a more minimalistic, but multicoloured icon. Lots of complaining about the colourful new logo. For a second, before everyone forgot it. Yeah, that's how important the colours are. Most people don't even remember how it used to be, at least after a while.

Colours are meaningless, powerful and seen in different ways. People apply meanings to colours, depending on their culture, experiences, what they have learned and how they see the colours. Your red is not necessarily my red, and what you call blue, I may call green. Your personal preferences and how other people perceive the colours don't always meet. Applying the colour psychology to your design can work brilliantly for some and have no meaning, or different meaning than you meant, to others. You cannot get people to buy your products or click your links by choosing "the right colour". People will click your links if they are consistently the same colour and style, and pop enough out from the text. People will buy your products if they like them or if they happen to like the colours, but not everyone will like the same colours. Your blog colours can annoy one person and make another swoon, but the colour psychology is almost as accurate as your daily horoscope. Unless, of course, you believe in daily horoscopes. Then I cannot help.

Colours don't have fixed meanings, other than the ones you give to them.

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