Reading the World of Color

Last issue I gave you a simplified version of what one researcher had to say about the relationship between color and personality

The idea was that color affects humans psychologically and physiologically (mind and body), and preferences for one color over another could clue us into that person’s current emotional state.  In which case, there’s reason to believe the color schemes you choose communicate a lot about you and your business, and speak favorably to certain personality types, who may (or may not!) be the bulk of your target audience.

A good friend, Hal Alpiar, wrote back to say, “Right on with this topic, Grok, but a follow-up is demanded.  How about some practical examples?”

Step outside that chalk-dust Ivory Tower and encounter the implied associations in the colorful world we get nose-to-nose with every day?   Color as symbol and metaphor?  Color in action in a consumer context?  I’m there!  So here, for your musing and amusement, is The Grok’s Collected Color Miscellany.

Beyond matters of personal preferences and body physics, colors have a cultural context – a color can become symbolic or representative of something that has its own associations of meaning.  This won’t be the same for all cultures.  So a friendly world of caution to my non-American readers:  some of these associations are U.S.-centric, but I’ll bet you have parallels.

Colors also have a commercial context – colors can encourage folks to tap into particular moods, influence a purchase, affect point of purchase behaviors.  And it is through commercial applications that we’ve acquired a lot of our knowledge about human reactions to color.

The Rainbow

Red is excitement, drama, urgent passion, strength, assertiveness and an appetite stimulant.  It’s the color of the Valentine’s Day heart or the rose of love, the red apple and the fire engine.  It’s the red of a Coca-ColaTM can that promises excitement and good times.  It’s also the color of the Devil!   Lots of casinos pair red with yellow (so what does that say about McDonalds and Burger King – they’re gambles?) and have discovered people are happier to risk their money under red light.  In most commercial applications, it seems folks respond best to red when it is used as an accent or highlight.  Strong preferences for red are linked demographically to those who feel most secure – both economically and personally.  Men favor yellow-reds; women prefer blue-reds.

Pink makes most people round here think of baby girls, so you’d think a lot of feminist types wouldn’t be too keen on it.  But here’s something to chew on!  Along with yellow, pinks are considered the warmest and most cheerful of colors … and pink is the more popular of the two.  Soft pinks generate simple, uncomplicated emotions (hot pink, just like most fluorescent colors, is low in popular appeal).  In fact, pink is so successful at eliciting gentler reactions that it is a color often used in prison cells (I can’t vouch for this firsthand!).

While orange may suggest fire, vitality, warmth and energy, all lovely associations, it’s the color most-detested by Americans (it is more popular in Europe and has particularly strong appeal in Latino and French cultures).  Maybe it’s the 70s associations you guys are stuck on.  But the research suggests if you’re going to use orange, it’s best tolerated when you are evoking a natural association.   Like carrots.  That, or go for a deeper orange that is earthier. 

Yellow is the very first color the eye processes.  It’s bright, sunny (as in “light” as well as “powerful”), welcoming, cheerful, and the color most visible to the human eye.  Lots of it’s associations are positive:  deities with glowing halos and golden hair, enlightenment, and precious metals.   But it evokes a few negative responses as well in associations with dishonesty, cowardice, egoism, betrayal and caution.  When it’s paired with black, it suggests warning – think stinging insects, all those traffic caution signs, and labels for hazardous materials.

Green is a mixed bag.  It’s the color of nature, a sign of growth, the harbinger of Spring and warmer weather.  Green represents optimism, good luck, freshness, fertility and suggests that things are getting better or healing.  As the color of money (at least boring old American bills), it has strong associations with finance, business, economic stability and entitlement.  And then there’s hunter green or British racing green – rooted in tradition, classic, affluent.  Green is actually the most restful color on the eye, and human eyes can discern more shades of green than any other color.

But green has its downside.  Green is linked with envy, Martians (hey!), sickness, slime and decaying food.  Yellow-green chartreuse is the second most-hated color in America!  The best favored shades of green across all consumer lines, including gender, are the blue-greens.

One group of people who respond very well to green are the “influencers,” those opinion leaders to whom folks go for advice.  They also happen to be about the only segment of the American audience that responds well to orange!

Blue creates an optical impression that objects are farther away than they really are.  But it’s the number one customer favorite regardless of shade – although men favor a darker shade of blue than women.  Blue is the preferred color for evoking “a soothing, calming tranquility in a frantically fast, often insecure world.”   It is no accident that so many corporate color schemes, think IBM’s Big Blue image, incorporate blue (which is also the second-most favorite color for business suits). 

Blue is also the color of the local policeman’s uniform, which suggests power and authority, but also inspires confidence, a sense of safety and trustworthiness.  For some cultures, blue is the color that wards off evil spirits, the ultimate color metaphor for protection.   And red, white and blue, together are still the biggest best-selling combo for packaging in the US.  Let’s hear it for the power of color and national pride (for the Irish is it green, white and orange?).  So when you want to make your visitors feel better about how much you’re going to charge their credit cards, give ‘em the bad news in blue!

Purple is a complex color, both in terms of it’s associations and the reactions different people have to it.  Interestingly, it’s also the hardest color for the human eye to discriminate.  It can be magic, or intense and ephemeral like the final glow of a sunset, or brave like a Purple Heart.  It can be regal and full of authority, rich and jewel-like.  Purple is a color that suggests intelligence and creativity, but it also suggests cruelty, and in some cultures, purple is the color of mourning.  If the purple is on the blue side, people tend to associate it with mystical qualities; if it’s on the red side, the associations are more sensual.   Red-purples grab people’s attention more effectively than blue purples.  Those between the ages of18 to 29 are especially partial to this color.

Brown is the earth, roots, giving of life.  It is also linked with wealth and a subtle but expensive taste, particularly fur shades.  It’s a secure color, a home-grown color, a grounded color.  However, brown is also associated with things that are dirty and unclean.  The enormous appeal of chocolate and coffee has given brown a bit boost in popularity, evoking qualities of comfort and satisfying aroma. 

White is the color of the dove of peace, crispness, tidiness, innocence, moral purity and cleanliness – after all, the goal of laundering is whiter whites!  It can also connote sterility and blandness.  Off-white is a neutral, but pure white is considered a brilliant color (capable of producing optical fatigue) and is highly visible to the human eye.

Pretty much anything goes with black – it sets off specific contrast associations when paired with other colors.  Black can be an extremely influential color; along with gray, it’s the top choice for your business suit.  It’s the color of mystery, of things not yet revealed.  It is a strong color, unequivocal.  Black is a polarizing color that suggests an opposite:  empty/full, dark/light, evil/good. 

Black also carries positive and negative connotations, and you should consider it’s use judiciously.  On the one hand, black can be sophisticated, elegant and representative of modernism.  This is an association especially true for wealthy, achievement-oriented women.   On the other hand, it can symbolize corruption, emptiness and depression - for many socio-economic groups and cultures, black is before all else the color of mourning, grief and death. 


Let me separate this association from above, because it’s important when encouraging movement on your Web site.  Think of traffic signal colors, mucho engrained in your visitor’s mind.  Red means stop, under no uncertain terms, wait, don’t move.  Yellow means caution, be on the lookout, be prepared to act quickly (in an ideal world, it’s not supposed to mean go faster!).  Green means go, you have the right of way, you can advance in good conscience.

Care to rethink your red call-to-action buttons?  In its latest version, AOL changed the color of the browser directional buttons (used to be yellow), the search button and the go button (both of which were blue) to green.

For Setting the Tone

Folks also associate certain qualities or emotional tones with individual color or groupings of color.  Pantone color expert Lee Eiseman elaborates on these associations.

Start looking critically at that colorful world around you.  There’s a reason banks like green in their carpets, while the local burger joint probably wouldn’t touch green with a 10-foot pole.  When you begin reading the colors around you, you can begin to apply them in meaningful ways to the persuasive dialogue you establish with your visitors.

Selected sources

1.  “All that glitters is not sold.”  Based on an address by Leatrice Eiseman at the 2001 International Housewares Show, January 2001.
2.  “Results of the Roper/Pantone Consumer Color Preference Study.”
3.  “ColorScopes:  Color Profiles.”
4.  For pure poetic color fun:   Hailstones and Halibut Bones:  Adventures in Color.   Mary O’Neill and John Wallner.  Doubleday.  1990.
5.  A wonderful site to explore:  Color Matters,
6.  For electronic books on color, its meaning and its application in Web design, check out Color Voodoo,

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