Color Symbolism: The Meaning of Colors in Different Cultures
Colors play a crucial role in our perception of the world. They are so influential that there are many idioms in different languages that express emotions using color references. ‘To feel blue’, ‘gray area’, and ‘a black sheep’ are among dozens of English similes that allude to color meaning.
A change in color might drastically alter the outcome of photos and design projects. Researchers and marketing professionals all over the world study the psychology of colors to understand how different hues influence customers’ decisions to interact with a brand or to make purchasing decisions.
In regards to color symbolism, the color becomes a symbol and is used to add another layer of meaning and help form associations. The symbolism of colors is not a precise science or something unequivocal, as one color can mean opposite things for different countries and different people. Nevertheless, it is always good to know what colors symbolize in Western and Eastern cultures when you start on a creative project. It will help you with context and intent to help appeal to people on an intuitive level, working with their innate associations.
The Symbolism of Colors in Different Countries
Red is considered the most intense color and greatly influences people’s emotional associations. Red represents a wide spectrum of feelings, emotions, and senses – love, passion, energy, anger, and even danger. Many warning signs are red, and traffic lights signal us to stop with the red light. It is also associated with excitement. Brands such as Coca Cola and YouTube use red as the primary color of their logos and branding.
In Eastern cultures, the color red has a slightly different meaning. It symbolizes happiness, prosperity, and good luck, which is why it’s one of the most widely-used colors for traditional holidays and celebrations in Asia. Many brides wear red on their wedding day, unlike in Western cultures, where brides traditionally wear white dresses.
Orange is the color associated with warmth, energy, fun, coziness, creativity, and enthusiasm. It also has a touch of freshness in its symbolism because of the fruit with the same name. Orange is an adventurous color which is associated with playfulness, youth, and joy (think about Nickelodeon or Fanta for example).
However, color symbolism with orange varies in different countries. While in Western cultures orange has a strong association with autumn and holidays such as Halloween, in many Eastern cultures orange represents humility as well as happiness. Buddist monks wear orange robes, and in Hinduism orange is considered a sacred color.
Yellow is a color with one of the most varied and even opposing meanings out there. It is strongly associated with sunshine, happiness, joy, optimism, and childhood. At the same time, it is often used as a warning sign, and symbolizes danger, fear, cowardness, and deceit. For example, we call irresponsible and poor journalism ‘yellow’. It is also used by many fast food companies as a bright color that evokes appetite – for instance, McDonald’s logo and branding.
The meaning of the color yellow depends both on the culture and the hue of the color. Light yellow shades are associated with relaxation in many countries. Bright yellow sometimes symbolizes jealousy in Western culture and in Eastern culture this color means good luck.
Green is a beautiful and relaxing color that symbolizes life, nature, environment, growth, fertility, calmness, and renewal. However, it has a contrasting meaning in Western culture where green is associated with money and wealth. Sometimes green is also a symbol of greed and jealousy. What’s more, we can call someone ‘green’ meaning they are new to something or inexperienced. Green represents action as we drive and walk when traffic lights switch to green.
In some Eastern countries the color green symbolizes youth, renewal, and eternity, but at the same time can indicate disloyalty or betrayal. Chinese men usually avoid wearing green hats as they are widely perceived as a symbol of a cheating wife. Green is a sacred color in Islam, seen as a symbol of the prophet Muhammad. In many Middle Eastern countries, green is a very appreciated color that symbolizes respect. In Mexico green is a part of the national flag. There, it’s a color that represents independence and freedom.
The blue color symbolizes pretty diverse things. On one hand, blue represents serenity, calmness, peace, and imagination. On the other hand, in Western cultures, the color is widely considered to represent melancholy, loneliness, and depression. There, blue is also associated with stability and security, which is why many American and European banks use this color in their design and logos. Facebook, Twitter, and Skype also have blue logos to show their reliability.
Blue is a highly spiritual color that symbolizes intuition, freedom, and wisdom. In Catholic countries blue is a symbol of the Virgin Mary and represents divinity and hope. In Hinduism, blue is a color of Krishna, hence it’s strongly associated with love, joy, and immortality. The color blue is believed to protect from evil forces in countries such as Greece and Turkey. While in many Western countries blue is associated with masculinity (‘blue is for boys, pink is for girls’), in China the color blue is a symbol of femininity.
Purple is the color that is widely associated with royalty, nobility, power, fame, luxury, and majesty, especially in Western countries. Purple color dye used to be very rare and expensive for centuries, and purple clothes were worn by royal families and aristocrats for a long period of time.
The color purple also represents magic, mystery, and spirituality, and is considered important in many religions. In Buddhism, historically only monks with the highest rank wore purple robes, and in Catholicism, purple is associated with penitence. In some countries across the world, purple is considered a mourning color along with black. For example, people dress in purple to attend funerals in Brazil, Thailand, and even India.
The color black is a symbol of death, mourning, and evil forces in many Western countries. It is also associated with elegance, sophistication, power, exclusivity, and mystery, which is why it’s so popular for design and marketing projects these days. The color black is powerful, serious, and neutral at the same time.
In African countries, black color means masculinity and maturity but is not a symbol of death since red is the color of mourning there. It’s also the universal color of authority, with many military uniforms being black. In Middle Eastern countries black is a symbol of rebirth.
The color white represents life, new beginnings, peace, minimalism, and elegance. White is also a symbol of innocence, virginity, purity, and humility, which explains the centuries-old tradition of brides wearing white on their wedding day. However, this symbolism of color white isn’t universal. In Eastern culture, the color white means very different things.
In many Asian countries, white is a color that represents death and mourning. White is worn at funerals, and the deceased are traditionally dressed in white. This tradition to dress dead people in white is also true for some Eastern European Slavic countries such as Russia and Ukraine, where it’s been in place for centuries.
The importance of color becomes central to any project. If you work in a creative industry or are searching for color inspiration for your photography or design projects, you need to remember the cultural differences. Choosing the right color depends on your location and the people you want to appeal to since first impressions and strong associations are everything.