Color Meanings

Clearly, using color to affect mood and behavior is not an exact science. The variables are too many, and the differences in response from one individual to the next are too great. Still, research suggests that some colors may tend to have measurable physiological effects on many people, if not all.

Culturally-learned meanings of color are also quite powerful, and can be used to subtly affect mood and behavior in some people. The following list discusses some of the meanings commonly associated with various colors in the US and other western societies, as well as the results of scientific study on specific colors where applicable:

  • Red: represents danger, warning, or error, but also warmth, love, passion, and intense emotion. Can also symbolize bravery, war, or blood. Some studies have shown it to stimulate appetite (which is why there’s so much red at McDonald’s restaurants) and improve accuracy on certain tasks.

  • Pink: the lighter shade of red represents love and romance, as well as femininity. Pink is generally considered to have a calming effect.

  • Yellow: this bright, attention-getting color is seen as a sunny, happy color, yet studies have also shown, paradoxically, that prolonged exposure to it can make adults lose their tempers and babies cry. Yellow is also the most fatiguing color to the eye.

  • Blue: seen as having a calming effect. Darker shades of blue (as in police uniforms and business suits) may suggest reliability and security. The color is also often associated with sadness. Studies suggest that the color blue can increase productivity and creativity, and may actually lower body temperature and pulse rate.

  • Orange: being a combination of yellow and red, orange is also a warm, stimulating and attention-getting color.

  • Brown: darker shades of red, yellow and orange are warm but less stimulating. These earthy colors can suggest strength and security.

  • Green: a combination of blue and yellow, this color is generally a physically soothing color that may simultaneously produce an emotional lift. Green is the color most associated with nature, and sometimes signifies good luck or money (which may be why at its extreme, green is associated with envy).

  • Purple: associated with royalty, wealth, and luxury, as well as spirituality and wisdom. Purple can seem exotic, but sometimes overly so. In some instances, purple can appear out of place or even artificial.

  • White: represents purity, innocence, and goodness. White makes a room seem brighter and more spacious, but too much white can have a sterile, cold effect.

  • Black: represents death, mourning, but also sophistication, as in formal wear, and authority, as in a judge’s robe.

  • Gray: literally a “middle-of-the-road” color, Gray is a practical, timeless color, but depressing when used in excess.
    Gray causes the least eye fatigue of any color.