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Understanding Color and Cultural Symbolism

When designing a website, every decision communicates something. How your website uses color is perhaps one of the most fundamental decisions. Yet many sites fail to consider the psychology of color and cultural symbolism when it comes to selecting a palette. Websites that fail to consider unconscious associations with color risk alienating or even offending their target markets.

Across the globe, colors hold different meaning to different cultures. This is important to understand when designing for the web because color and cultural symbolism can be very powerful. You should understand what your color selection in your design is saying to an audience that might be of a different culture. Let’s take a closer look at our emotional connection with color and the cultural meanings.

Emotional Responses to Color

Color perception is a combination of science, art and human emotion. Our perception of color varies by our individual biology, neurochemistry and cultural influences. This can include our unique heritage, religion, geography, and gender.

Understanding Visual Semantics

In every culture, color communicates subconscious meanings and emotional responses that can impact the success of your design. These often include the use of multiple colors together, wether contrasting or harmonizing. Below is a list of colors and their associated meanings in North America.

North America Visual Semantics

  • Red — excitement, heat, power, energy, love, passion, aggression, blood, intensity, strength, fire, stop, danger
  • Orange — emotion, enthusiasm, alertness, warmth, excitement, positive, organic, Autumn, immaturity, deprivation
  • Yellow — emotion, positive, competent, happy, energy, sunshine, warm, optimism, hope, joy, philosophy, Summer, caution, jealousy, dishonesty, cowardice, betrayal
  • Green — growth, go, positive, clam, organic, tasteful, comfort, fresh, life, nature, health, good luck, money, beginning, renewal, envy, tranquility, jealousy, envy, stagnation
  • Blue — masculine, stable, calm, serenity, trustworthy, mature, fluid, refreshing, conservative, corporate, security, technology, order, intellect, sorrow, youthful, peace, clean, clear, Winter, cold
  • Purple — youthful, contemporary, royalty, wisdom, authority, introversion, decadence
  • White — pure, clean, honest, bright, spacious, precision, innocence, sterility, happiness, divine, light, joy, Winter, sterility, cold, elitism, death
  • Black — serious, formal, heavy, power, sexuality, sophistication, mystery, death, darkness, fear, unhappiness, evil, mourning
  • Gray — integrity, neutral, cool, mature, corporate, modesty, intellect, futurism, purity, innocence, spacious, empty, sadness, sorrow, decay
  • Brown — reliable, earthy, practicality, wholesome, organic, unpretentious, rugged, boring, dirty, humorless, unsophisticated
  • Gold — conservative, stable, elegant, materialistic
  • Pink — youthful, feminine, warm, calming, love, romance, sophistication, sincerity, inhibition, emasculation, physical weakness
  • Pastels — youthful, soft, feminine, sensitive, playful, Spring, Immaturity
  • Metallics — elegant, lasting, luminous, rigidity

Global Visual Semantics

Color and Cultural Symbolism Infographic

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Ted is a graphic designer and front-end developer who specializes in branding, marketing, and website development.