Color Symbolism for Graphic Artists

What Different Colors Mean to Us

Color symbolism is the use of color to represent traditional, cultural or religious ideas, concepts or feelings or to evoke physical reactions. In graphic design and publishing, choosing a color based on its symbolism applies to print and electronic projects from logos to website backgrounds. Colors are non-verbal communication. They have meanings that go beyond ink.

As you design brochures, logos and websites, keep in mind how the eye and the mind perceive certain colors and the symbolism associated with each one.

The Symbolism of Cool Colors

Cool colors tend to have a calming effect. At one end of the spectrum, they are cold, impersonal, antiseptic colors. At the other end, the cool colors are comforting and nurturing. Blue, green and the neutrals white, gray, and silver are examples of cool colors.

In nature, blue is water and the sky while green is grass, trees and other plant life—a natural life-sustaining duo. Combine blues and greens for natural, watery color palettes. Heat up a cool color palette with a dash of warm color such as red or orange. If you want warmth with only a blue palette, choose deeper blues with a touch of red but not quite purple or almost black deep navy blues.

Cool colors appear smaller than warm colors, and they visually recede on the page so red can visually overpower and stand out over blue even if used in equal amounts. If you want to focus on the calm, use more of the cool and just a dash of the warm colors.

The profiles for each of these cool colors include descriptions of their meanings and how to use each color in design work.

Warm Color Symbolism

Warm colors rev us up and get us going. The warmth of red, yellow or orange can represent excitement or even anger. Warm colors convey emotions from simple optimism to strong violence.

The neutrals of black and brown also carry warm attributes.

In nature, warm colors represent change as in the changing of the seasons or the eruption of a volcano. Tone down the strong emotions of a warm palette with some soothing cool or neutral colors or by using the lighter side of the warm palette such as pinks, pale yellows and peach.

Warm colors appear larger than cool colors, so red can visually overpower blue even if used in equal amounts. You can often back off from the warm shades and still convey its excitement.

The profiles for each of these warm colors include descriptions of their meanings and how to use each color in design work.

Mixed Warm and Cool Color Symbolism

Colors with attributes from both the warm and cool colors can calm and excite. These are colors derived from a mix of a cool and warm colors such as cool blue plus warm red or cool blue plus warm yellow. Shades of purple and shades of green along with beige are mixed colors that carry the color symbolism of both the warm and cool sides of the color wheel.

A cool blue and a warm red combine to create deep purples and pale lavenders. To a lesser extent, shades of green, especially turquoise and teal, also have both the warming and cooling effects born of warm yellow and cool blue.

Some light neutrals such as cream, pale beige and taupe evoke some of the same warm and cool feelings of purples and greens. The opposite or clashing color for purple is green and for green, it is purple.

The profiles for each of these mixed colors include descriptions of their meanings and how to use each color in design work.

Neutral Color Symbolism

The neutral colors of black, white, silver, gray and brown make good backgrounds, serve to unify diverse color palettes, and also often stand alone as the only or primary focus of a design. Neutral colors can be cool or warm but are more subtle than blues and reds.

Neutral colors help to put the focus on other colors or serve to tone down colors that might otherwise be overpowering on their own. To some extent, blacks, browns, tans, golds and beige colors are considered warm.

While white, ivory, silver and gray are somewhat cooler colors. Yet these warm and cool attributes are flexible and more subtle than those of reds or blues.

The profiles for each of these neutral colors include descriptions of their meanings and how to use each color in design work.

Physical and Cultural Reactions

Sometimes colors create a physical reaction—red has been shown to raise blood pressure—and at other times, it is a cultural reaction. In the U.S., white is for weddings, while in some Eastern cultures, white is the color of mourning and funerals. Colors follow trends as well. Avocado, a shade of green, is synonymous with the '60s and '70s in the minds of some consumers.

Color Relationships

In addition to understanding symbolism, it helps when mixing and matching colors to know the relationship of adjacent, harmonizing, contrasting and complementary colors. 

  • Adjacent or harmonizing colors appear next to each other on the color wheel. Harmonizing colors often work well together but if they are too close in value, they can appear washed out or not have enough contrast. A harmonizing trio could be something like blue, light blue and cyan or perhaps red, orange and yellow.
  • Contrasting colors are separated from each other by other colors—they come from different segments of the color wheel. The further they are apart, the more the contrast. Red from the warm half of the color wheel contrasts with green and blue from the cool half of the wheel. Shades of purple contrast with shades of green. 
  • Complementary colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel. For example, blue is a complementary color to yellow. Green is complementary to purple and magenta. A pair of complementary colors printed side by side can clash making them a less than desirable combination. However, separate them on the page with other colors, and they can work together.