Lose the Color Symbolism Chart: The Unpredictable Meanings of Color

As an experienced art director and design practitioner, I am confident in proclaiming this: Color has no meaning. Don’t get me wrong, I believe color is powerful and essential to creating a positive brand experience, helping guide what consumers think and feel. But color alone doesn’t do this; it is the context of use that creates the right effect, fueled by a careful orchestration of color, text, and imagery to achieve its intended purpose.

At PPO&S, our creative team needs to think about color and help guide clients toward the right decision for their assignment. It may be persuading them why a certain blue is not distinctive enough for a logo or why a combo of red and purple might be a bad idea for their ad.

There is experience and thinking behind these color recommendations. We don’t rely on generalizations of color symbolism because they don’t take context into account. Our thought process for color is a deliberate exploration unique to each project that begins with investigating the purpose of the message and how we want the audience to respond. Should the message make people angry? Should it surprise or delight? Does it need to look classy or playful?

Do colors mean anything?

It is true that some people associate colors with ideas and feelings and that these associations vary by culture. Our creative team keeps these associations in the back of their minds as they explore color for our clients. But, again, it is context that gives colors their associations, not the color itself, and we search for the right context to help color help our clients tell their story.

Color associations chart
This is one of the many color association charts available on the internet. Take charts like this with a 2-ton grain of salt.

The internet is jam-packed with countless articles and posts on the meaning of colors or color associations. Check them out and you will find the same message echoed all over: Red is associated with war, danger, desire, love; yellow is associated with joy and happiness; blue symbolizes strength, intelligence, security; and so it goes. You will even find articles that make “scientific” claims like looking at the color orange can increase your oxygen or that red can stimulate your blood flow.

While there is research, albeit not exhaustive, that proves some colors may influence our behavior, this same research says that such effects do not come from color alone but from how and where it is used. In other words, context truly matters more than what the color actually is.

Color meanings can be contradictory.

In some Asian cultures, white is associated with death. Yet many brides in these countries wear white wedding dresses. How could this be? White symbolizes death when white flowers are brought to a funeral. But white on a bride can be associated with purity and maidenhood. How can the same color have such different meanings? It all depends on how and where color is used.

I once had a boss who argued that we shouldn’t use black on his company’s self-promotion because black is associated with death. We were talking about a space-themed self-promotion — satellites in space, stars in the dark sky. Yes, black attire at a funeral can represent sadness and death for some people. But black for a space-theme self-promotion can represent mystery, awe and wonder.

You can control what color says.

I like to think of color as words in a sentence. A word by itself is just a word. Put it in a phrase or sentence, and the word becomes more than its dictionary definition; it becomes an idea, a feeling, an expression. It may even come to mean something entirely different than the standard interpretation.

This analogy says something we must remember about color: It’s just one component out of many. Color and the context in which it’s used helps tell the story, but we don’t depend on color alone to do this. Words, tone, fonts, images, medium, environment, etc., must also be considered as part of the whole. It is the end product — the context— that will have the “final” say.

Color may not have inherent meaning, but it can be made meaningful. The key is being intentional about how, where and when to use it. So make that logo red, blue, purple, or pink, regardless of what their supposed associations are — so long as the context is right for your brand. I’m going to make everyone wear bright yellow at my funeral.

By Carlos Centeno Associate Creative Director