Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color
By Cameron Chapman
Color in design is very subjective. What evokes one reaction in one person may evoke a very different reaction in somone else. Sometimes this is due to personal preference, and other times due to cultural background. Color theory is a science in itself. Studying how colors affect different people, either individually or as a group, is something some people build their careers on. And there’s a lot to it. Something as simple as changing the exact hue or saturation of a color can evoke a completely different feeling. Cultural differences mean that something that’s happy and uplifting in one country can be depressing in another.
This is the first in a three-part series on color theory. Here we’ll discuss the meanings behind the different color families, and give some examples of how these colors are used (with a bit of analysis for each). In Part 2 we’ll talk about how hue, chroma, value, saturation, tones, tints and shades affect the way we perceive colors. And in Part 3 we’ll discuss how to create effective color palettes for your own designs.
Warm colors include red, orange, and yellow, and variations of those three colors. These are the colors of fire, of fall leaves, and of sunsets and sunrises, and are generally energizing, passionate, and positive.
Red and yellow are both primary colors, with orange falling in the middle, which means warm colors are all truly warm and aren’t created by combining a warm color with a cool color. Use warm colors in your designs to reflect passion, happiness, enthusiasm, and energy.
Red (Primary Color)
Red is a very hot color. It’s associated with fire, violence, and warfare. It’s also associated with love and passion. In history, it’s been associated with both the Devil and Cupid. Red can actually have a physical effect on people, raising blood pressure and respiration rates. It’s been shown to enhance human metabolism, too.
Red can be associated with anger, but is also associated with importance (think of the red carpet at awards shows and celebrity events). Red also indicates danger (the reason stop lights and signs are red, and that most warning labels are red).
Outside the western world, red has different associations. For example, in China, red is the color of prosperity and happiness. It can also be used to attract good luck. In other eastern cultures, red is worn by brides on their wedding days. In South Africa, however, red is the color of mourning. Red is also associated with communism. Red has become the color associated with AIDS awareness in Africa due to the popularity of the [RED] campaign.
In design, red can be a powerful accent color. It can have an overwhelming effect if it’s used too much in designs, especially in its purest form. It’s a great color to use when power or passion want to be portrayed in the design. Red can be very versatile, though, with brighter versions being more energetic and darker shades being more powerful and elegant.
The dark shades of red in this design give a powerful and elegant feel to the site.
The true red accents stand out against the dark black background, and give a powerful and high-end feeling to the site.
The very bright red accents on this site give a sense of energy and movement.
The dark red on this site, because it’s combined with grunge elements, seems more like the color of blood.
Dark red, when combined with white and gray, gives a very elegant and professional impression.
Orange (Secondary Color)
Orange is a very vibrant and energetic color. In its muted forms, it can be associated with the earth and with autumn. Because of its association with the changing seasons, orange can represent change and movement in general.
Because orange is associated with the fruit of the same name, it can be associated with health and vitality. In designs, orange commands attention without being as overpowering as red. It’s often considered more friendly and inviting, and less in-your-face.
The bright orange box draws attention to its contents, even with the other bright red elements on the page.
Orange is used here in its most obvious incarnation, to represent fire.
The dark orange, when set against the lime green, almost acts as a neutral and grounding color here.
Orange is used here to give a friendly and inviting impression.
The orange accents here add a lot of visual interest and bring attention to the call to action.
Yellow (Primary Color)
Yellow is often considered the brightest and most energizing of the warm colors. It’s associated with happiness and sunshine. Yellow can also be associated with deceit and cowardice, though (calling someone yellow is calling them a coward).
Yellow is also associated with hope, as can be seen in some countries when yellow ribbons are displayed by families who have loved ones at war. Yellow is also associated with danger, though not as strongly as red.
In some countries, yellow has very different connotations. In Egypt, for example, yellow is for mourning. In Japan, it represents courage, and in India it’s a color for merchants.
In your designs, bright yellow can lend a sense of happiness and cheerfulness. Softer yellows are commonly used as a gender-neutral color for babies (rather than blue or pink) and young children. Light yellows also give a more calm feeling of happiness than bright yellows. Dark yellows and gold-hued yellows can sometimes look antique and be used in designs where a sense of permanence is desired.
The bright yellow header and graphics used throughout this site give a sense of energy and positivity.
The light yellow is used almost as a neutral in the header here, and combined with the hand-drawn illustrations gives a very cheerful impresison.
The bright yellow accents bring attention to the most important parts of this site.
The bright yellow sunflower reminds visitors of summer on this site, and combined with the antique-yellow background, it gives a homey and established feeling.
The bright yellow header here adds a bit of extra energy to this design.
Cool colors include green, blue, and purple, are often more subdued than warm colors. They are the colors of night, of water, of nature, and are usually calming, relaxing, and somewhat reserved.
Blue is the only primary color within the cool spectrum, which means the other colors are created by combining blue with a warm color (yellow for green and red for purple). Greens take on some of the attributes of yellow, and purple takes on some of the attributes of red. Use cool colors in your designs to give a sense of calm or professionalism.
Green (Secondary Color)
Green is a very down-to-earth color. It can represent new beginnings and growth. It also signifies renewal and abundance. Alternatively, green can also represent envy or jealousy, and a lack of experience.
Green has many of the same calming attributes that blue has, but it also incorporates some of the energy of yellow. In design, green can have a balancing and harmonizing effect, and is very stable. It’s appropriate for designs related to wealth, stability, renewal, and nature. Brighter greens are more energizing and vibrant, while olive greens are more representative of the natural world. Dark greens are the most stable and representative of affluence.
The extremely muted greens of this site give it a very down-to-earth and natural feeling.
The bright green header of this site mixed with the leaf motif gives it a very natural and vibrant feeling.
The more olive-toned green of this site gives it a natural feeling, which is very appropriate for the content.
The brighter, more retro-looking greens of this site give it a very fresh, energized feeling.
Another olive green site with a very natural feeling.
Blue (Primary Color)
Blue is often associated with sadness in the English language. Blue is also used extensively to represent calmness and responsibility. Light blues can be refreshing and friendly. Dark blues are more strong and reliable. Blue is also associated with peace, and has spiritual and religious connotations in many cultures and traditions (for example, the Virgin Mary is generally depicted wearing blue robes).
The meaning of blue is widely affected depending on the exact shade and hue. In design, the exact shade of blue you select will have a huge impact on how your designs are perceived. Light blues are often relaxed and calming. Bright blues can be energizing and refreshing. Dark blues are excellent for corporate sites or designs where strength and reliability are important.
The dark blues give this a feeling of reliability, while the brighter and lighter blues keep it from feeling staid.
The dark blue gives this a site a professional feeling, especially when combined with the white background. But the lighter blue accents add a bit more interest.
The bright, sky blue of this site gives it a young and hip feeling, which is emphasized by the reddish accents.
This site combines a range of blues, which gives it a refreshing feeling overall.
The light, muted blue of this site gives a very relaxed and calm impression.
Purple (Secondary Color)
Purple was long associated with royalty. It’s a combination of red and blue, and takes on some attributes of both. It’s associated with creativity and imagination, too.
In Thailand, purple is the color of mourning for widows. Dark purples are traditionally associated with wealth and royalty, while lighter purples (like lavendar) are considered more romantic.
In design, dark purples can give a sense wealth and luxury. Light purples are softer and are associated with spring and romance.
The dark shade used here evokes the royal heritage of purple, which is very appropriate for the Asprey luxury goods brand.
The light and medium purples here work well to convey a sense of creativity.
The brighter, more reddish purple of this site gives it both a rich and energetic look.
The dark purple background here adds to the creative feeling of the overall site.
The dark purple accents on this site give a sense of luxury and refinement.
Neutral colors often serve as the backdrop in design. They’re commonly combined with brighter accent colors. But they can also be used on their own in designs, and can create very sophisticated layouts. The meanings and impressions of neutral colors are much more affected by the colors that surround them than are warm and cool colors.
Black is the strongest of the neutral colors. On the positive side, it’s commonly associated with power, elegance, and formality. On the negative side, it can be associated with evil, death, and mystery. Black is the traditional color of mourning in many Western countries. It’s also associated with rebellion in some cultures, and is associated with Halloween and the occult.
Black is commonly used in edgier designs, as well as in very elegant designs. It can be either conservative or modern, traditional or unconventional, depending on the colors it’s combined with. In design, black is commonly used for typography and other functional parts, because of it’s neutrality. Black can make it easier to convey a sense of sophistication and mystery in a design.
The black accents, mixed with the brighter colors and very dark brown background add an edgier look to the overall design.
Black, when mixed with icy blues, looks colder.
The black here, mixed with dark grays and lime green, and an overall grungy theme, adds to the edginess of the design.
The black accents here add an extra layer of sophistication and modernity to the site.
The strong black accents on this site add to the overall sophistication of the design.
White is at the opposite end of the spectrum from black, but like black, it can work well with just about any other color. White is often associated with purity, cleanliness, and virtue. In the West, white is commonly worn by brides on their wedding day. It’s also associated with the health care industry, especially with doctors, nurses and dentists. White is associated with goodness, and angels are often depicted in white.
In design, white is generally considered a neutral backdrop that lets other colors in a design have a larger voice. It can help to convey cleanliness and simplicity, though, and is popular in minimalist designs. White in designs can also portray either winter or summer, depending on the other design motifs and colors that surround it.
The white on the Fuelhaus site is used to contrast against the electric blue.
White backgrounds are very popular on minimalistic sites, and provide great contrast to black typography.
Here, white is used as an accent color, which lightens the overall effect of the site.
White combined with gray gives a soft and clean feeling to this design.
Again, white used as a background lightens the whole design.
Gray is a neutral color, generally considered on the cool end of the color spectrum. It can sometimes be considered moody or depressing. Light grays can be used in place of white in some designs, and dark grays can be used in place of black.
Gray is generally conservative and formal, but can also be modern. It is sometimes considered a color of mourning. It’s commonly used in corporate designs, where formality and professionalism are key. It can be a very sophisticated color. Pure grays are shades of black, though other grays may have blue or brown hues mixed in. In design, gray backgrounds are very common, as is gray typography.
Light gray gives a very subdued and quiet feeling to this design.
The light gray background here adds to the modern feeling created by the typography.
The cooler gray on this site gives a modern, sophisticated feel to the site.
The dark gray backround and lighter gray typography lend a decidedly modern look to this design.
The wide spectrum of gray shades used in this design combine to give a sophisticated and professional look to the site.
Brown is associated with the earth, wood, and stone. It’s a completely natural color and a warm neutral. Brown can be associated with dependability and reliability, with steadfastness, and with earthiness. It can also be considered dull.
In design, brown is commonly used as a background color. It’s also seen in wood textures and sometimes in stone textures. It helps bring a feeling of warmth and wholesomeness to designs. It’s sometimes used in its darkest forms as a replacement for black, either in backgrounds or typography.
The grayish-brown here lends a sense of responsibility and dependability.
The orangish-brown here gives a very earthy and dependable feeling.
The dark brown used in the background here lends an earthy and steadfast look to the overall layout, and lets the brigher colors in the design really get to stand out.
Woodgrain is a popular use of brown, and in this case the warm brown adds some friendliness to an otherwise minimalist site.
The grayish-brown background here lends a feeling of stability and down-to-earthness.
Beige and Tan
Beige is somewhat unique in the color spectrum, as it can take on cool or warm tones depending on the colors surrounding it. It has the warmth of brown and the coolness of white, and, like brown, is sometimes seen as dull. It’s a conservative color in most instances, and is usually reserved for backgrounds. It can also symbolize piety.
Beige in design is generally used in backgrounds, and is commonly seen in backgrounds with a paper texture. It will take on the characteristics of colors around it, meaning it has little effect in itself on the final impression a design gives when used with other colors.
The light tan background here feels young and fresh because of the bright colors around it.
The light tan background here lends a more conservative and elegant feeling to the overall design.
The yellowish tan background is made even warmer by the orange and brown accents throughout this site’s design.
Tan is popularly used as a paper-bag texture, and in its more grayish form as a concrete or stone texture.
The beige header background and other accents on the site lend a refined and traditional feeling to the overall design.
Cream and Ivory
Ivory and cream are sophisticated colors, with some of the warmth of brown and a lot of the coolness of white. They’re generally quiet, and can often evoke a sense of history. Ivory is a calm color, with some of the pureness associated with white, though it’s a bit warmer.
In design, ivory can lend a sense of elegance and calm to a site. When combined with earthy colors like peach or brown, it can take on an earthy quality. It can also be used to lighten darker colors, without the stark contrast of using white.
The ivory background here has a warm quality that’s tempered by some of the cooler colors on the site.
The grayish-cream background here is made warmer by the orangish-brown accents.
The cream background adds a sense of understated elegance this site would otherwise be lacking.
The cream background here reinforces the antique theme that runs throughout the design’s graphics.
The ivory combined with other light colors and jewely tones makes this site have a very elegant overall appearance.
While the information contained here might seem just a bit overwhelming, color theory is as much about the feeling a particular shade evokes than anything else. But here’s a quick reference guide for the common meanings of the colors discussed above:
Red: Passion, Love, Anger
Orange: Energy, Happiness, Vitality
Yellow: Happiness, Hope, Deceit
Green: New Beginnings, Abundance, Nature
Blue: Calm, Responsible, Sadness
Purple: Creativity, Royalty, Wealth
Black: Mystery, Elegance, Evil
Gray: Moody, Conservative, Formality
White: Purity, Cleanliness, Virtue
Brown: Nature, Wholesomeness, Dependability
Tan or Beige: Conservative, Piety, Dull
Cream or Ivory: Calm, Elegant, Purity（source：smashingmagazine）