Origins of Color Connotations: Introduction
Each color has a certain set of connotations. Where do they come from?
Knowing the origin of color connotations should help us make a sound decision on the choice of color in our design projects, rather than relying on our personal feelings which may not be shared with other people.
This publication proposes the following sources of symbolism for each color:
Orange: Fire and Fruit
Brown: Timber, Soil, Autumn leaves
Yellow: Sunshine, Gold, Brightest hue, Jaundice (a skin disease)
Green: Leaves, Unripe fruits, Opposite of red, US one dollar bills
Cyan: Water, Gemstones, Lack of established connotations
Blue: Sky, Water
Purple: Rare in nature, Mix of red and blue
Pink: Blush, Flowers
White: New undyed fabric, Full of light, Snow
Grey: Elderly people’s hair, Dust, Cloudy sky, Mix of black and white, Lack of hues
Black: Lack of light, Ink
These sources of each color can explain its wide, sometimes mutually contradicting, variety of connotations.
When we learn about color and its application to design, we often see something like this:
Red. It symbolizes both good and bad feelings including love, confidence, passion, and anger.
Orange. An energetic and warm color bringing the feelings of excitement.
Yellow. This is the color of happiness, the sunlight, joy, and warmth.
Green. The color of nature which brings calming and renewing feelings.
Blue. It often represents some corporate images. May be associated with distance and sadness.
Purple. Long associated with royalty and wealth. It’s also a color of a mystery and magic.
Black. It associates with a tragedy and death and signifies a mystery. At the same time, it can be traditional and modern.
White. The color means purity and innocence, as well as wholeness and clarity.
It’s from a Medium article with more than 4000 claps (Tubik Studio 2017).
But how can we remember all these? How can we make sure everyone sees each color this way? How do we make sense out of the contradicting explanation such as black being both “ traditional and modern”?
To answer these questions, I have explored the sources of color connotations by taking the following methodology:
I start with the creation of the list of connotations for each color.
Different people see colors in different ways. But we need a set of connotations for each color that most people agree with.
To narrow down the sources of information (and to avoid selectively picking the connotations that I can explain), I conducted Google search (in incognito window, to avoid any bias due to my personal browsing history) on phrases like color connotations, color symbolism, white connotations, black connotations, red connotations, etc. The search was conducted in September 2019.
Interestingly, the following five websites keep showing up among the top five results (excluding Wikipedia):
- Bourn Creative Blog (a design agency’s blog written by Jennifer Bourn)
- Color Wheel Pro (a software developed by QSX Software Group)
- Empowered By Color (a website by book author Judy Scott-Kemmis)
- Color Psychology (a website by painter Dena Przybyla)
- Color Meanings (a website by designer Jacob Olessen)
To focus on widely-accepted connotations of each color, I keep only those mentioned in at least two websites above. It turns out that the list of connotations in Color Psychology is largely a copy-and-paste of Color Wheel Pro. So I disqualify it from this process.
After compiling the list of connotations for each color by consulting these four websites, I try to come up with the reasons, as simple as possible, why each color has historically been associated with such a set of connotations.
Then I illustrate my point with the examples from art and design, past and present, taken out of my design notebook over the last several years.
Similar attempts in the past
Surprisingly, there are very few attempts to understand the causes of color connotations. Quora often receives a question on why some color has a particular symbolism. But answers are almost always “no one knows”.
Natalie Wolchover of Live Science wrote an article “How 8 Colors Got Their Symbolic Meanings” back in 2011. I haven’t been unable to find any other article on the web that attempts to explain the origin of color connotations.
All this suggests it’s an elusive topic. It’s worth attempting to come up with a theory.
This publication is not a scientific piece of analysis, even though I have such a background (I got a PhD in economics, which is useless when it comes to color symbolism). It is more of a hand-waving argument to give an as-simple-as-possible framework for grasping a wide, possibly mutually contradicting, range of color connotations.
If you know evidence in support of, or against, the framework that I provide here, I would love to hear from you. Post a comment to the relevant article.
It is an ongoing project. The publication will be updated whenever I find new origins of connotations, new evidence in support of what I have written, additional connotations that can be explained by my theory.