Mention Thanksgiving to any American and they will paint a picture in their head with gold, orange, red, and brown hues. It will also likely invoke a sense of family, gathering, and thankfulness. But color and the emotions we associate with them are not exclusive. If I were to show you a picture of red roses, a champagne bottle with an orange label and a gold foil box of chocolates, you would see the same colors but perhaps think of a different holiday and a different emotion.
These colors and the emotional meaning behind them are a conglomerate of time, story, memories, culture, and environment. There is no “Official Holiday Color Committee” and though we sometimes treat it as such, there is no “Official Company or Industry Color Committee.” As with holidays, company and industry palettes evolve from culture, story, and environment and those colors have meaning.
Color Is a Language
Color is a language just as English is. I can communicate "health" with words like "strong," "vibrant," and "energetic." I can also communicate “health‘ with the lush, healthy greens of vegetables and plants, the bright yellows of sunshine, and the trusting blues of authority and cleanliness. You often see the same palettes used in industries and branding, not because they are a standard, but because they communicate a message and an emotion that is common to that industry.
But even with in an industry, color meanings can change. Would you be relaxed going into surgery if the protective gowns and masks that doctors wore were bright hazardous yellow or the flaming reds of infection rather than the cold blue of sterilization? If you were visiting your new baby in a nursery at a hospital, would you be more nervous if the nurses wearing the cold blue of sterilization, or the pastel yellow of the sun and the rosy pinks of warm cheeks?
The Logo Company Presents a nice infographic on the meaning color in branding in their article “Psychology Of Color In Logo Design.” But again, these are traditions and not rules. Fro this graphic though, you could look at the graphic below and quickly assess why most health groups use blue, orange, and green in there branding. However, does that mean you should never use purple or red? If you are a Center that specializes in heart health, then yes. If you are an optometrist, the color associated with irritation is probably not the best choice. Additionally, if you are a health care center that sets itself apart with its creative approach to medicine, why not take advantage of the cultural context of the color purple?
Culture Plays A Role
The idea that color has meaning and emotion is not a modern concept. An early exploration of emotion in color comes from the German poet and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his 1810 treatise, Theory of Colours, but color and its meaning goes back even further and it varies widely by region and environment.
When I moved to Asia as a child, one of the first things I noticed was how positive and prominent the color red was while the color white was reserved for more somber occasions. Often these more historical meanings come from the availability and value of such colors. Red vermillion, also know as chinese red, was first synthesized from mercury and sulfur in China in the 8th century.
A similar history envelopes the color purple in western culture. Tyrian purple was dye made from crushed mollusks that was so expensive only royalty could afford it. There are many of these cultural color differences. Therefore, if you are creating data that will be represented to your colleagues in another country, you may need to consider what message you are really sending. The blog “Information Is Beautiful” has created a brilliant information graphic to help guide you.
Questions To Ask Yourself When Choosing Color
What are others doing and do you want to set yourself apart?
What additional accent colors can you introduce to change the meaning/message of your design?
Can you use other attributes of color to modify such as value? A pastel yellow can mean something different than a bright vibrant yellow.
What are other sources for the meaning of color?
Commercial (branding, products)
Fashion and textiles
Cultural events (sports, holidays)
Geography, industry, and environment
What colors have personal meaning to my message, brand, or information?
Continued Reading on Emotion and color: