Color and Emotion: What Does Each Hue Mean?

Color can evoke a wide-range of responses and it is important to understand the effect a hue can have on your message when planning a design project.

Color and Emotion: What Does Each Hue Mean?

You have probably heard people refer to warm and cool colors when making choices about how to paint a room or what shade of makeup a woman selects. But did you know that color can mean so much more than that?

The colors you use on your website can elicit different emotional reactions from people. Years of research has proven that each color has associations with certain feelings and can create a mood. Understanding color choices and implied perceptions can help you create a more effective design without unintended color miscues.

Warm and cool colors

Warm and cool hues refer to the feeling a color scheme implies. Warm colors include reds, yellows and oranges and are often used to paint the walls of living spaces in homes and used as accents to pop out neutral shades. Cool colors, such as blues, greens and purples, are popular choices for bedrooms and more relaxed home spaces because of their versatility. In the same way these colors are used to create certain feelings in a room, they can be used to elicit emotion for your website.

Warm colors are inviting, happy and cozy. These colors can make spaces appear smaller because warm tones seem to advance, creating a cozy feel. Warm colors can create an active response in the brain and bring feelings of excitement, passion and sometimes aggression. In extremely large spaces, an abundance of warm color can get overwhelming and is best matched with neutral tones.

Cool color choices, considered calming and soothing, are somewhat recessive and can make spaces feel a little more open than they are. Some argue that a cool color scheme can make a physical space actually feel cooler than it is and should be matched with open spaces (such as white space or neutrals on your website). Cool hues bring about a more passive reaction in the brain and can make a person feel pleased, relaxed or even subdued.

Red

Red, one of three primary hues, is one of the most powerful and emotion-evoking colors. Reds can feel sweet and innocent when mixed with white to create pink tones or bring about sharp responses when used in the pure form. With the addition of black, reds can create a darker emotional response, such as anger or convey passion.

While reds can be used as the primary color behind your design, the hue is often best as an accent with other colors or used in more subdued ways. Know what kind of response reds can draw – passion, stimulation, excitement, power and growth – and use that to your advantage when considering the color.

Quick color associations: Light red for joy and love; dark red for rage and anger, but also leadership and courage; pink for romance and feminine qualities; and rusty reds for fall and change.

Green

Green, another primary color, is one of the most calming and neutral of shades. Green represents balance and harmony and is often used to depict nature and hope. Lighter shades of green (with a bit of yellow) are a bit more cheery and light and can even have some warm associations. Darker greens represent stability, safety and affluence – think money; American bills are dark green in color. With the addition of blue, greens become more teal and take on cooler tones.

Greens work in many situations, as base colors and accents. This hue is one of the most pleasing to the eye. Be aware of sometimes unintended emotional consequences associated with greens, such as inexperience or sickness.

Quick color associations: Yellow-greens for sickness and discord; dark green for ambition and prosperity; teal for emotional health and stability; and olive green for peace and harmony.

Blue

Blues are the hues of serenity, peace and security. The last of the three primary colors that create the RGB color base we use for digital design is used in a variety of design combinations. Blue, because it also creates a sense of calm and friendliness, is the primary color used by popular social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.

Blue works well as both a background and accent color and is a shade that most people can relate to, although it can have masculine properties. Darker blues are also text friendly. Darker hues are often used in the color schemes of corporate websites, while lighter hues are more commonly showcased in lighter applications. Blue, which has associations with water and the sky, can also help add a natural feel to your site. In contrast, blues are seldom used in combination with food or in food packaging because some studies have shown that the calming effect from the color can actually suppress a person’s appetite.

Quick color associations: Light blue for heath, depth, stability and faith; dark blue for knowledge, power, trust and integrity.

Purple

Purple mixes some of the warm and cool, and passionate and tranquil qualities of red and blue. Purple has long represented royalty, power and wealth. Purples also promote a sense of creativity and imagination, because the color is not dominant in nature.

Purples can have a variety of practical uses. Lighter shades, which are soft and feminine, can create a light or romantic mood. Darker shades have a heavier, moodier feel and can sometimes cause a sense of instability or uneasiness.

Quick color associations: Light purple for softness, nostalgia and romance; dark purple for moodiness, including unease, gloom or frustration or the much different sense of power and control.

Yellow

Yellow is simply happy. It has long been associated with energy and encouragement. The hue is stimulating and makes everything feel light and sunny. On the flip side, yellow is also associated with caution.

Yellow is a great highlight or accent color but can be difficult to use in broad-based design. Pair and match yellow with contrasting colors to ensure that your message is clear. Yellow easily “washes out” and can lose luster when used in lighter forms.

Quick color associations: Light yellow for caution and trepidation; dark yellow for happiness, joy and freshness.

Orange

Orange is the harmonic marriage between red and yellow. It combines the passion and energy from the primary color with the sunniness and freshness of yellow. Orange hues tend to be balanced, energetic and inviting.

But this hue can be tough to make work. Oranges are great for splashes of color and accents but can almost cause a too-busy effect when used as a dominant color. Use orange to represent movement but be wary of the colors’ ability to overpower other design elements.

Quick color associations: Yellow-orange or gold for prestige and wisdom; red-orange for pleasure, energy, health and desire; and dark orange for change or distrust.

Neutrals and browns

Neutrals and browns are the epitome of nature and are used abundantly in design (so much so that many natural tones may go unnoticed). Brown and neutral tones can represent anything from peace and calm to wholesomeness and reliability or even boredom.

Browns work in a variety of functions – for backgrounds, accents and as a text color. The hues blend with almost every other shade to create a pleasing effect.

Quick color associations: Pale browns for calm, purity and elegance; medium to tan for dullness or conservation; and darker browns for stability, comfort and experience.

White and black

White and black are the purest forms of color (or lack thereof). Each represents simplicity and formality. It is almost impossible to create anything without the addition of white or black.

White is often associated with purity, cleanliness and perfection. Black is the color of power, elegance and mystery. It can also be associated with fear and unknowing. Each of the colors can have a stark look when used without accentuation. The combination of black and white, gray, can be calming and dull.

Quick color associations: White for clarity, cleanliness and openness; black for power, elegance and mystery; and gray for calm and conservative.

Color Wheel image by Team Dalog.

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Carrie Cousins has more than 10 years experience in the media industry, including writing for print and online publications, and design and editing. Carrie is also a sports fanatic and spends way too much time planning football and basketball trips and obsessing over stats.

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Website: http://about.me/carriecousins

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  1. 1

    I really enjoyed reading this and I’m going to bookmark it for sure. I love articles like this and you did a great job with it!

  2. 3

    Correction: Green isn’t a primary color … its secondary. Red, Yellow & Blue are primary … but green is one of the basic colors identified in the rainbow – or a simple crayon box.

    • 4

      Exactly! Primary colors are what are used to make the rest of the colors. There is no way to make red, blue, or yellow. BUT by combining blue and yellow you get green.

    • 5

      This depends on which model is meant:

      “For additive combination of colors, as in overlapping projected lights or in CRT displays, the primary colors normally used are red, green, and blue. For subtractive combination of colors, as in mixing of pigments or dyes, such as in printing, the primaries normally used are cyan, magenta, and yellow,[1] though the set of red, yellow, blue is popular among artists.”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_colors

      That’s why it’s called RGB… and that’s what is used in the web…

  3. 7

    Articles about colour and emotion are often written with a quick association of green with environment renewal, or, even worse, recycling. Thank you for getting a bit more in-depth than that! I love the associations of green with nature and hope, and I agree that it can serve even more diverse emotional purposes than that as well. Nice work!

    Cheers,
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  4. 10

    Great article!
    Just remember that the color associations may vary between different cultures (good to know if you’re building international websites). =)

    • 11

      Totally agree….For instance in Western Culture, White is associated for Marriages but the same color is associated with Unhappiness and Death in India.
      While Green can mean Money to some people, it also perceived as a color of Exorcism in China.

  5. 14

    Great Stuff.

    I still maintain blue…. in all of it’s variations.

    When you are out of colors, blue is always a friend. Used it on previous projects and it worked wonders.

  6. 15

    thanks for sharing :)

    I like the yellow one, the site just using two colors, black and yellow, and i think, that’s nice..

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