Opposites React

The plus and X symbols are common elements from our everyday lives, peppered throughout our field of vision as we peruse the world around us. These symbols are mundane, quite frankly, and in the hundreds of times we interact with them in the course of a week I doubt many of us give much thought as to how they affect us. That is why they are great specimens for experimenting with how symbols and color create deep emotive responses based on their combinations.


The plus sign stands for addition, the act of adding something. Most of us would learn this meaning early on in grade school and use it regularly through schooling and beyond. Thanks to repeated usage, its meaning has become ingrained in our psyches and its recall is instinctual and automatic. Perhaps because of this familiarity and recall the plus sign is commonly used in software interfaces as a button. Indeed it is used to power many actions: adding a note, adding a friend, even adding a browser tab.

Adding creates a psychologically positive emotion, generally speaking. Even the word positive, imbued with unique connotation, is a technical term commonly expressed with a plus sign in the field of mathematics. It’s difficult, I would venture, to mentally separate the neutral act of adding something with the recognition of the biased connotation. The manifestation of this relationship is evident in popular culture, where materialistic influences suggest that things are resources and having more resources is better.

So the plus sign should generate a positive emotion. Does it still do that in the piece above, where it’s colored red with a jet black background? Color adds an additional layer of meaning. The intention was for the red color to create anxiety and force you to think about the plus sign out of its natural element. Try to imagine a red plus icon in an app that powered the ability to add friends: does it instinctually incite a positive or negative response?

Red doesn’t always carry a negative connotation. After all, roses are red, mascots are red, and many flags use the color red. Context is critical to the meaning of color. In software interfaces red tends to carry a negative connotation when it’s used on a button. Personally, I liken the effect of a red button to a red stoplight: STOP! Consider your actions carefully. Of course red buttons are not entirely like stoplights, because advancing is not life threatening. Some product designers do intentionally use red buttons though to try to convince you that tapping is more life threatening than you think. That’s why it’s especially used for closing applications, canceling out of purchase flows, or anything else that signals you want to disengage with a service.


The X symbol stands for closing a page or canceling an action in software interfaces. Interestingly enough, this manner of using the X symbol in software interfaces can’t be explained by a deep-seated and universal parallel in modern society. Although English does have the phrase “cross out” where the cross is commonly denoted as an “X”, I can’t argue that phrase is so common as to create an instinctual and automatic recall for the symbol X. Instead, using X in software to denote closing or canceling was originally inspired by the NeXT computer, as described in this wonderful post. By now, the X symbol in apps and webpages is ubiquitous and has created instinctual and automatic recall for the billions of people addicted to their devices.

Closing or canceling creates a generally negative psychological emotion. To close or cancel something means to bring it to an end. The end state is a null state, when an activity or an object transitions from something to nothing. The manifestation of this relationship is evident in popular culture once again, where materialistic influences suggest that things are resources and having something is good whereas having nothing is bad. Hopefully I’m not grasping at straws by painting such a narrative :)

So the X symbol should generate a negative emotion. Does it still do that in the piece above, where it’s colored green with a sky blue background? The intention was for the green color to elicit positive emotions, at stark contrast with the negative emotions elicited by the X. Try to imagine a green X icon in an app that powered the ability to close an unsaved draft of your thesis: does it instinctually incite a positive or negative response?

Unlike the red plus icon, I don’t believe green has as consistent a connotation when used for buttons in software interfaces. Therefore, I would expect a much larger diversity of perspectives regarding the combination of emotions elicited by a green X button. I would love if you left a comment with your thoughts!


Finally, consider the two symbols together as if they were buttons in the same app. How do the symbol and color combinations make you feel about interacting with them? Would you feel more comfortable if the colors were switched? If you have conflicting emotive responses when considering this piece, then it has accomplished its goal of asking you to recognize and understand the deep dissonance created by otherwise subtle and mundane forms from our everyday experiences.

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