Thoughts
March 6, 2023

The psychology of color meanings and associations

Color's a tricky thing. You can ask two people can be looking at the same object, and depending on who they are (and more importantly, when they are), you can get two different answers.

In Italian, dark blue and light blue are often described as separate colors, "blu" and "azzurro," the same way that English commonly differentiates between red and pink. In Japan, the traffic lights for "go" are blue instead of green, technically the "bluest shade of green," because the words for the two colors don't map to the same hues in English.

As it turns out, over the course of their development, all languages go through a similar process of settling on color names – starting with black and white and eventually getting to purple, orange, pink, and grey at the end. This is how Homer ends up sailing on a "wine-dark sea" – the ancient Greeks didn't differentiate dark blue from dark red at the time of the Odyssey.

In a more contemporary context, we're vexed by vastly inconsistent digital screens, printers, and lighting. Pantone has made a whole business out of helping standardize color around the globe, by printing and distributing what is effectively a big book of vetted paint swatches. (But they still can't do much about the 300 million people with some form of color blindness, including 1 in 12 men).

So color is a little weird. It's tough to get right all the time. But in branding and design, it matters a whole lot.

Color can completely change the way your brand looks and feels. Just a couple tweaks to your palette can make your identity soft and friendly, fun and exciting, or tough and rugged. A luxurious brand can be discounted, or a bargain-bin product elevated by fiddling with your saturation. Their's a bit of science and history to help you find your own recipe – let's take a look.

Warm Colors

Color can be broken up a number of ways, but the most common framework you'll see it is to take a rainbow and bending it in upon itself to create a circle, known as a color wheel. We can then take this wheel, draw a line down the middle, and divide the two sections into warm colors and cool colors. Warm colors look like the name on the tin: reds, oranges, and yellows like a glowing campfire. These lively colors move towards you, and you'll often find them on bold, energetic brands.

Red

Red symbolizes passion, war, energy, caution, anger, love, passion, and power. It’s the color of blood and heart, of financial loss and of triumphant victory. As a bold primary color, it’s one of the most immediately striking hues, and it forms a stark contrast on both white and black backgrounds, making it a popular choice for confident industry leaders.

Red brands include Coca-Cola, Virgin, Target, Red Bull, and ESPN.

Orange

Orange symbolizes creativity, joy, sunshine, happiness, creativity, warmth, autumn, and determination. This is the color of citrus fruit, tropical fish, and fallen leaves. It’s a funky secondary color, the child of red and yellow, and it’s frequently used as a parter to blue, it’s complimentary color.

Orange brands include Harley Davidson, Tropicana, Home Depot, Nickelodeon, and Dunkin.

Yellow

Yellow symbolizes happiness, energy, sunshine, youth, fun, and cheerfulness. Yellow shines down on us from the sun, and smiles up at us from gardens of flowers and their attending butterflies. This hue can be a handsome goldenrod or vibrant canary, but it will sometimes have a hard time being seen against light backgrounds, somewhat limiting its applications.

Yellow brands include McDonalds, IKEA, Nikon, Post-It, and Ferrari.

Cool Colors

The other half of the color wheel are the cool colors: blue, green, and (sorta) purple. These calmer, steadier colors recede from your eye and are often used for their stable and soothing effects in branding. Many large, corporate identities signal their strength and reliability through these options, and UI designers will use them for interface elements that feel considered and efficient.

Blue

Blue symbolizes stability, trustworthiness, water, sky, depth, confidence, truth, wisdom, professionalism, and fairness. Blue is as close as you can get to a neutral within the traditional color palette – business executives wear navy suits and we all wear blue jeans. The sky is blue, and so is the ocean... though not much else in the natural world. It’s a color you can use safely nearly everywhere. Nobody has a problem with blue, and that's its greatest strength.

Blue brands include Facebook, IBM, GE, Chase, and Unilever.

Green

Green symbolizes nature, growth, renewal, money, calm, success, luck, harmony, and freshness. It’s the color of everything that grows, from grass on a baseball field to Christmas trees soon to be chopped down for living room display. It’s “go” at an intersection and profit on a balance sheet. Green things are healthy and natural, which is why is appears all over a Whole Foods. And it’s a painted on our currency, which is why you’ll see banks drape it on their identities as well.

Green brands include TD Bank, John Deere, Starbucks, Girl Scouts, and Android.

Purple

Purple symbolizes royalty, power, mystique, magic, romance, extravagance, and dignity. Purple is a weird one: through most of human history, strong purple pigments were exceedingly rare and thus very expensive. Not a lot in nature is purple, save a few fish and flowers, so when only kings and queens could afford purple garbs, it subsequently developed a mysterious and regal aura. It’s also probably one of the hardest colors to work with, as this secondary color doesn’t play that nicely with other hues.

Purple brands include Yahoo, Hallmark, Taco Bell, FedEx, and Twitch.

Neutrals

Beyond the traditional color wheel, there are a few other crayons in our box: the neutrals of white, black, brown, and grey that largely fall outside of the warm/cool divide. Fewer brands rely entirely on these neutral tones, but they often play a valuable supporting role in other identities.

White

White symbolizes innocence, peace, purity, divinity, cleanliness, balance, and truth. White is the absence of color, the opposite of darkness, and it is logistically impossible to stand on its own – every color is seen in relation to white. It’s the peacefulness of clouds and heaven, the expanse of a blank canvas, and the silence between the noise.

White is featured prominently in brands including Apple, Wikipedia, and Nike.

Black

Black symbolizes elegance, sophistication, death, night, weight, and modernity. If white is minimal nothingness, black is minimal “everythingness.” It’s the absence of color and light, and it’s also nearly impossible to exclude from any design (though a smidge easier than white, as grey often helps out on that front). Black is sleek, stark, and powerful. It means business.

Black is featured prominently in brands including Adidas, Sony, and Gucci.

Brown

Brown symbolizes rustic, earthy, age, stability, support, agriculture, and organic. Brown’s what you get if you mix all your paint brushes together, and thus it feels like one of the most natural and inevitable hues. You’ll often find it paired with green in the grocery store and on the hiking trail. Frequently depicted as a muddy, dark orange, it also handsomely compliments blue in fashion and design.

Brown brands include UPS, M&Ms, Nespresso, UGG, and Cracker Barrel.

Grey

Grey symbolizes maturity, professionalism, dependability, quiet, and responsibility. Grey is the vast middle ground between pure light and pure dark – but still absent color. Second only to white, it’s one of the most common and versatile colors in a brand’s palette. The shade is often used as shorthand for “boring,” but that’s just bad PR. Muscular charcoals can be strong and serious, and dusty off-whites can add depth and intrigue.

Grey brands include Lexus, Swarovkski, Grey Goose, Sketchers, and Honda.


This is all just the tip of the iceberg. Some modern OLED screens can display more than a billion different colors – so you have quite a selection to pick from.

But like that iceberg, your color palette is just the small part of your brand that's above water. It isn't the brand, it's the identity that represents your brand. You need to build out all the stuff below the line before you can choose the right direction. Here's how to do that.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just released his first book – Simply Put, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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