Colours and How They're Interpreted (Graphic Design Theory)


Whether or not it’s something that you consciously register, you brain is always interpreting meaning, moods and emotions from the colours you see.

Our brains release various small amounts of chemicals when the eye sees certain colours. For example, red can, in some cases, raise your heart rate, whilst blue lowers it. Working with this principle, we can see a number of real world uses for lighting public spaces using certain colours. This has been implemented in Yamanote railway in Tokyo, where blue lights have been installed, which has been observed to reduce the number of suicides. The same blue light has been installed in Glasgow, Scotland, where it’s been said to reduce crime rates (source: Psych Central.)

In the grand scheme of things, our understanding of how colours can affect our moods, emotions and more is relatively new. We’re only just now beginning to understand colour and ways it can be utilized in urban settings.

In the graphic design world, we’ve understood that certain colours work for certain applications, whereas others do not. Your brain already understands colour, it knows the meanings and how to interpret them. Think of colour theory as a language that your brain unconsciously understands, but consciously, you do not. That’s going to change now.

Let’s break down the colours and their meanings, plus some real world applications.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Red

This is the colour of passion. It’s seen as the strongest and boldest colour, grabbing the most attention. It’s associated with strong emotions, such as love and anger. It can be used to signify courage, danger, passion, strength and power.

You can use the colour red to create urgency, stimulate, draw attention, show caution or encourage. Red will often be seen in the entertainment, food, sport and healthcare industries.

In terms of graphic design, taking into consideration the meanings of red, you can see it present in things such as (unsurprisingly) Tinder, YouTube, KFC and McDonald’s, to name a few.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Blue

Blue is often considered to be the colour of trust. It’s been thought to induce calm and tranquility in those who view it. It can also instill confidence, loyalty, integrity and responsibility.

This colour can be used to reduce stress, create calmness, relax and create order. It’s often associated as being the go-to colour for social media platforms, and can typically be found in the security, finance and healthcare industries.

Because of the feelings of trust and loyalty the colour blue creates, it’s no surprise that this colour is used for a number of different social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Messenger and more. It can also be seen in the WordPress logo, Fox logo, Intel logo and the IBM logo, to name but a few. This is probably one of the most common colours to be found in logos.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Green

Green is very often linked with health, growth and nature. It also has a strong association with being a colour that promotes renewal, regrowth and peace. It provides a restful and secure feeling within the people who view it.

The colour green is often used to express feelings of rejuvenation, relaxation, balance and encouragement. This colour can often be found in the banking, health, agriculture and real estate industries.

Naturally, due to the effects associated with green, it makes sense that the Holiday Inn, Animal Planet and Starbucks logos all make use of it.

Graphic Design Theory - Yellow

Yellow is the colour of fun, summer and optimism. It’s often used to convey a fresh energy, new perspectives, success and confidence. Yellow stimulates the left side of the brain (the logical side) and helps in decision making and clear thinking.

Often, yellow will be used to stimulate, relax, inspire and energize. You’ll often see this colour in the food, transport, travel and leisure industries.

As this is the happy colour that inspires creativity, it’s no surprise that this is the dominant colour used by Snapchat, Nikon, IKEA and more.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Pink

Pink is often seen as the colour of sensitivity. It’s a mixture of the passion of red and purity of white, which creates a colour that’s often associated with love, tranquility and femininity. 

This colour is often used to communicate energy, increase pulse, motivate action and increase creativity. You’ll often find this colour in children’s products, women’s products, as well as used heavily in the beauty and fashion industries.

You’ll find a heavy use in the colour pink in products and services that are primarily aimed at females, such as Barbie, Cosmopolitan, Hello Kitty and even the Breast Cancer Awareness ribbon.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Purple

Purple, or violet, is the colour that is most often associated with spirituality. The energy and passion of red combined with the trust and relaxation of blue come together to create a colour that promotes reflection and self awareness within the viewer. The colour purple has long been associated with royalty and luxury.

This colour can be used to inspire creativity, promote reflection or impress with luxury. You’ll often see this colour present in the humanitarian, psychic and religious industries. 

Not surprisingly, with its connotations of luxury, purple is featured in the Cadbury and Hallmark logos. The feeling of reflection also comes into play in the logo for Monster.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Orange

This is often seen as the colour of encouragement. It’s a mix of both red and yellow, which helps it convey excitement, warmth and enthusiasm. Orange is a motivating and encouraging colour, and will appeal to young people in particular.

Orange can be used to stimulate, communicate fun, draw attention and express freedom. You’ll often see this colour in the art, entertainment, sport and transportation industries.

The colour orange can be found in the Rockstar Games logo, the Nickelodeon logo and, naturally, the Hooters logo.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Brown

Brown is the colour of stability, the Earth and solid foundation. This colour is often associated with things that are natural and simple. Although it’s considered to be a dull colour, it also connotes reliability, strength and wholesomeness. Brown is the colour of safety and confidence. 

The moods that emanate from the colour brown include reliability, stability, honesty, comfort and a feeling of being natural. This colour will typically be found in the agricultural, construction, transport industries as well as the legal sector. 

Brown can be found in logos for Louis Vuitton, M&Ms as well as the US based country store and restaurant chain Cracker Barrel. Brown is the perfect colour for the latter company as it’s natural and earthy.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Grey

This is the colour of compromise. It’s considered to be the colour of being unemotional or detached. It can convey doom, depression and can bring up feelings of frustration. It is, however, linked with protection and maturity.

Grey can be used to depress energy, communicate maturity, and conjure neutral and practical feelings. As is the same with black, grey can often be found in practically all areas of design, either as a primary, secondary or accent colour.

Graphic Design Colour Theory - Black

Black is a very powerful colour. It’s used to promote formality, strength, sophistication and the air of secrecy. It can, however, connote fear and evil, as well as convey the feeling of pessimism and a lack of hope in some people.

This colour can often be used to hide feelings, show power, represent secrets and can be associated with fear and mystery.

Black can be found in practically every industry, product, brand and service. Whether or not it’s the primary, secondary or accent colour, black will almost always be present.

Those are the base meanings and emotions that can be extracted from the primary and main secondary colours. Of course, when you’re putting together colour schemes for your design work, you can combine various of these to create a mixture of emotions. Doing this will allow you to very accurately represent your brand or product’s message, utilizing the meanings and feelings that emanate from the colours. 

Hopefully this was helpful in your journey of learning graphic design, or just understanding how colours can affect us in ways we’re not always aware of. 

I’m planning on putting together more posts like this, with the goal of helping people in learning the principles of graphic design. Would there be anything in particular you’d be interested in knowing? Let me know via the contact page!