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The Meaning Behind Colors

blurry abstract neon backgroundIn our everyday language, we often associate colors with emotions, perceptions, and concepts: “seeing red” as an expression of uncontrollable anger; “feeling blue” on days when things are not going our way; and using black as a negative prefix (black market, black sheep, blacklist, etc.).

These connections between visual stimuli and specific concepts are socially constructed, as evidenced by differences in cultural interpretations of color. For example, widows in India are only allowed to wear white, as a symbol of emptiness, while Western cultures associate the same color with the opposite concept: life.

It is logical to assume, then, that every color we see has a certain connection to concepts in our minds. In some cases, like the ones revised above, the association is clear and evident to all. In others, it appears to be more indirect and even unconscious. However subtle these color-concept links may be, they should not be disregarded when creating an image that will be presented to the public. As plenty of studies in social cognition show us, unconscious perceptions (such as words that are presented too fast to be read, faces too fast to be remembered, and words too fast to be processed) have a powerful effect on our choices and interpretations. In other words, things that we don’t (or can’t) pay attention to actually affect the way we read and extract meaning from our environment.

A clear example of these color-concept links is shown every time you turn on the TV. Shows, films, and movies all have directors of photography and producers that think and define the colors of each set, wall, and take. How many bright yellow interrogation rooms have you seen on crime-related shows?

Marketing experts and top designers are also aware of these connotations of color, and they thoughtfully choose each hue for their brands, logos, images, websites, and other visual tools. This is why, for example, many money-related companies and institutions rely on the trustworthiness of blue (Chase bank, American-Express, Walmart). Even those who include less trust-eliciting colors, like red and orange, include hues of blue to compensate and remain dependable (SunTrust, PNC).

These decisions are not random and you can be sure that all those banks and companies did not choose blue because “it was pretty” or “it looked good”. In fact, they purposely used color as a way to further establish themselves as trustworthy brands. So the next time you are thinking about a new brand, website, poster, or image, ask yourself: what will your colors say?