The semiotics of colour

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Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Colours. We all have our favourite one. In orchestrating experiences and communications, colour plays a role in delivering information, creating lasting identity, suggesting imagery and imparting symbolic value.

The semiotics of colour is about the meaning we convey through colour as a sign. Semiotics establishes the meaning of a symbolic, iconic and indexical sign. Colour semiotics determines the meaning imparted by the sensation that an observer experiences when they look at the colour of such signs.

The semiotics of colour in context

Emotional

There is a reason why red is a dominant colour in a lot of gyms; this colour has been cited to raise muscular strength and energy. How we emotionally react to colours is in part innate and in part learned. For example, yellow is seen before other colours when placed against black; this combination is often used to issue a warning. Consider now how this also happens to be the colour combination of many harmful creatures; wasps, hornets or even the Speckled King snake.

Socio-economic

Cultural

White is associated with hygiene, emptiness, purity and intelligence, but it can also mean mourning, death and sterility. In the West gender became a cultural colour; pink for girls and blue for boys.

With one click, we have thousands of colours at our disposal. But the appropriate use of colour semiotics impacts the success of design and the message it delivers.

What does it mean?

Additional complexity around the semiotics of colour

Sports fans will associate different meaning to colours because of positive or negative associations with teams. These groups can be outliers to the consensus around colour held by larger communities. Yet depending on their importance to the user experience, the semiotics these groups respond to may influence design– imagine a design for a Football club’s website without their home strip.

In short, we take colour for granted. With one click, we have thousands of colours at our disposal. But the appropriate use of colour semiotics impacts the success of design and the message it delivers.

It’s a tricky field to navigate, the associations we give to colour and the associations we actually want to establish vary widely. On the one hand, these connections of meaning seem obvious, on the other they seem unpredictable and anarchic. We’d be quick to jump to only determine or measure the emotional or psychological reactions people have when observing a colour. But semiotics is about meaning, not emotions.

By understanding the value of users’ reaction to colour as part of the communication process, experience design practitioners can develop more informed design activities to communicate the intention behind an established meaning. This will strengthen your brand identity and add to the value your brand drives for your customers.

This article first appeared on Foolproof.co.uk and is part of a series that unpacks the role of Semiotics in the design decisions we make.

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Mario Van der Meulen

Written by

Head of CX Design and Strategy, Tribal Worldwide. Designer. Strategist. Author. Speaker. Graphicdesignosaurs. Skilled Daydreamer. Incurable Nighthinker.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Mario Van der Meulen

Written by

Head of CX Design and Strategy, Tribal Worldwide. Designer. Strategist. Author. Speaker. Graphicdesignosaurs. Skilled Daydreamer. Incurable Nighthinker.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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