Color theory 102: Color meanings

In our previous post we talked about color harmonies and how to use them to create pleasing color arrangements. So we learned which colors match, but we didn’t talk about how to select colors to convey certain messages. Let’s find out 🙂

Non-verbal communication

Colors, apart from giving visual interest and contrast, also give the design a message/meaning. This meaning stems from the viewer’s prior knowledge, experiences, and cultural background. The colors’ message should support the shapes’ message. Let’s illustrate this with an example: The logo of Japan Airlines is composed of several components. First we can see the shape of a bird, more specifically a crane. The crane symbolizes flight and in Japan the crane is also a symbol of longevity and good luck. This message is emphasized by its color. Red represents power, but in Asia it also symbolizes good luck. The shape of the crane is rounded to mimic the Japanese flag. So one way to interpret the logo is: “A powerful Japanese flight transport company, that wishes you good luck on your journey”.

Common color meanings

It is important to stress that color meanings can be very subjective and can differ from individual to individual, but there are some common meanings that are universally attributed to each color. We will talk about these In the following sections.


The color red attracts attention and evokes emotion and is universally seen as the color of romance and warmth. It can also represents danger and aggression. It’s been proven to increase appetite so it’s commonly used by food companies. It also gives a sense of urgency so it’s often used in sale advertisements.

Common meanings: Confidence, passion, strength, power, attention, love, excitement, energy, action, aggression, “Stop!”, danger, and hot.


Orange is associated with playfulness and enthusiasm. Similarly to red it’s thought to stimulate appetite. Orange is also used in some warning labels. But this color is not very popular in the United States, since the prison uniforms are also orange.

Common meanings: Happy, energetic, sociable, friendly, affordable, enthusiastic, sunny, and in some cases warning.


Yellow is happy and optimistic (remember the smiley face?). It’s cheerful and warm, which encourages communication. Because of its brightness it can be used to catch attention. In some cases it can be too bright so it is recommended to use it in combination with other colors. It can also mean wealth (think gold).

Common meanings: Logical, optimistic, progressive, confident, playful, and creative.


The first thing we associate green with, is nature and vegetation aka. greenery. It is a color that represents life, freshness, and growth. Its commonly used in eco-friendly companies or biological companies, and it’s also associated with “go/start” or success.

Common meanings: Nature, life, freshness, tranquility, success, environment, harmony, new, wealth, and “start/go”


Blue is one of the most popular colors. It communicates security, scalability, and dependability so it is commonly used in corporate logos. It is often associated with the sky and water which we often connect with serenity, peace, freedom and cold. The color can also be regarded as conservative and a masculine color.

Common meanings: Trust, conservative, dependable, secure, scalable, calm, serene, cool, and peace.


The classic color of nobility and emperors is associated with wealth and luxury. Historically it was the hardest color to reproduce. It can also mean fantasy, mystery, magic, and can evoke a feeling of wisdom and imagination. It is commonly used in beauty brands and it is also a color that resonates well with children, so it’s used by toy and candy companies.

Common meanings: Royalty, luxury, mystery, magic, creativity, uniqueness, and majesty.


Pink is generally associated with femininity and is used with brands that target women. It is also associated with sweetness and is seen in logos for sweet foods like ice cream or donuts. It also evokes a sense of playfulness.

Common meanings: Femininity, sweetness, playfulness, energy.


Black is used in high-end, exclusive brands. Black gives brands a sense of sophistication, formality and seriousness. It is used by brands that deal in luxury products. Logos that only use black may come off as plain. It can also be associated with death.

Common meanings: Elegance, seriousness, exclusivity, style, formality, expensive, authority, and death.

Multiple colors

Brands that use multiple colors want to communicate diversity. Colorful logos attract children, so many toy companies use this kind of logos. Multi-colored logos also give of a sense of easygoingness. Such logos are commonly used in IT and internet companies.

Common meanings: Diversity, fun, childlike, multi-disciplinary, and multi-functional.

Colors and branding

Colors should support the brand of a company. Research shows that people make subconscious judgments about a product, person, or company within the first 90 seconds of initial viewing. Somewhere between 62% and 90% of this assessment is based on color, which means that colors may have a very large impact on your brands identity.

Let’s try this out with an exercise. The following is a logo of very known brand. Which brand do you think it is? If you guessed Coca-Cola, you’re right. This is the Chinese Coca-Cola logo. A lot of the recognizability comes off shape, but the color really makes it obvious.

In conclusion

The color needs to support the design and the idea it wants to convey. It’s also important to note that these rules aren’t set in stone, merely guidelines, and sometimes breaking the mold can be a very successful move. Some such logos can be seen in the example logos so don’t be afraid to try things out.

While writing this post we were inspired by this page – have a look 🙂

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