Color and cultural design considerations
The world seems to be getting a little smaller each day thanks to online communities and social networking. In turn, this “world-wide community” has created an international readership for a variety of websites.
Designers must weigh carefully the messages they send to that potentially broad user-base.
One aspect of design that can have far reaching and sometimes unintentional effects on readers is color. Colors have a variety of associations within North American culture alone, and can mean something radically different to Japanese or Middle Eastern readers, where color meanings are frequently much more specific and defined.
It is important to understand how color associations vary from culture to culture, and within different possible audiences, when planning a website.
Understanding color can be a tricky challenge and many color meanings can almost seem contradictory — particularly in the West, where color meanings are extremely broad. When working with color, remember to think about context and how color is used with other elements such as text and photos.
Here we’ll look at a rainbow of basic hues and what meanings people of different cultures may infer from them.
Western cultures (North America and Europe) Red is the color of passion and excitement. It has both positive and negative associations — danger, love and excitement and when used with connection with the former Eastern block, it represents communism. Red is also associated with power and has some religious undertones when used with green to represent Christmas. The multiple, and varying, Western associations with the color are a combination of different meanings from other cultures.
Eastern and Asian cultures Red is the color of happiness, joy and celebration. It is often the color worn by brides on their wedding day because it is thought to bring luck, long life and happiness. It is also a color often associated with Chinese restaurants in the United States, because of the associations with luck and happiness. Specifically in India, the color relates to purity and in Japan it is associated with life, but also anger or danger.
Latin America In Mexico and some other Latin American nations, red is the color of religion when used with white.
Middle East Red evokes feelings of danger and caution. Some also consider it the color of evil.
Around the world Red is worn to celebrate the Chinese New Year to bring luck, good fortune and prosperity.
Western cultures (North American and Europe) Orange is the color of harvest and autumn. In the United States, for example, the color signifies the fall season beginning in September with the start of school though to Halloween and Thanksgiving in late November. It is also associated with warmth and citrus fruits. In The Netherlands, where it is considered the national color, the most common use of orange is to signify royalty.
Eastern and Asian cultures The hue, especially saffron (a yellowish orange that matches the color of the plant) is sacred in Indian cultures. In Japan, orange tones are symbolic of courage and love.
Latin America Orange is considered sunny; it is also associated with the earth in some countries because of the reddish-orange ground color.
Middle East Orange is associated with mourning and loss.
Around the world The color can also have religious associations: It is the color of gluttony in Christianity.
Western cultures (North America and Europe) The bright cheery nature of yellow is the predominant meaning in most Western nations. It is associated with warmth (the sun), summer and hospitality. In the United States, specifically, the color is associated with transportation — taxis and school buses are yellow as are many different types of street signage. Tea maker Lipton, for example, uses yellow to market worldwide but there are changes in what colors people are wearing in advertising material if you toggle between sites aimed at different countries. In Germany, yellow is associated with envy (which is described as green in most other Western cultures).
Eastern and Asian cultures Members of the royal ruling class often wear this hue and the color is considered sacred and imperial. In Japan, that definition is expanded to include courage (which is expected of rulers) and is the color of commerce in India.
Latin America On the contrary, yellow is associated with death and mourning in many Latin cultures.
Middle East Though in Egypt, yellow is most closely associated with mourning (in much the same way as Latin American nations), it is more widely connected to happiness and prosperity in the Middle East. The associations with yellow are closely related to those of Western cultures.
Around the world In many African nations, only people with high rank in society can wear yellow. The more gold variations of the color are universally associated with money, quality and success in most world cultures.
Western cultures (North America and Europe) The most popular color for bank logos is blue because it represents trust and authority. The color is also masculine and used to represent the birth of a boy. Blue is also considered to be calming, soothing and peaceful although it can also be associated with depression or sadness.
Eastern and Asian cultures The hue is ever-lasting in its association with immortality. In Indian culture blue is the color of Krishna — a central figure in Hinduism and one of the most popular Hindu gods. Many Indian sports teams use the color as a symbol of strength. Unlike in the U.S., where blue is associated with men, it is considered a feminine color in China.
Latin America Because of the high Catholic population of Central and South America, blue is often associated with religion as the color of the Virgin Mary’s robe or headscarf. Moreover, blue can cause an emotional stir because of its association with mourning. It is also the color of trust and serenity in Mexico, and is the color of soap in Colombia.
Middle East Blue is safe and protecting. It is the color associated with Heaven, spirituality and immortality.
Around the world In Thailand, blue is the color associated with Friday. Blue is often considered the most positive and safest color for a global audience. Skype, the international web-based telephone company, uses a blue color scheme for each of its sites around the world.
Western cultures (North America and Europe) Green is the color of the Irish (think St. Patrick’s Day and it is also the national color of Ireland) and represents luck throughout most of the West. Green also refers to nature, the environment and protection of environmental causes, such as “green business” or “green household cleansers.” Green is also associated with Christmas, when used in combination with red. It is also the symbol of progress — green means “go” — but can also represent of envy.
Eastern and Asian cultures Green is the color of nature and new life in much of the East. It also represents fertility and youth. However, it can have equally negative connotations: green is the color of exorcism and infidelity; in China, wearing a green hat is associated with cheating on your spouse.
Latin America In many Latin and South American cultures, green is the color of death.
Middle East For the majority of the Middle East the strongest association with green is that of Islam. It represents strength, fertility, luck and wealth.
Around the world In the United States, green is the color of money and is often associated with jealousy. Green, superficially olive green, is the color of almost every active military in the world.
Western cultures (North America and Europe) Purple is the color of royalty and is often used for the cloaks and robes of kings and queens in modern movies. It is associated with wealth and fame. It is also symbolic of modernism and progression. Specifically in the United States, it is a color of honor; the military’s highest award is considered to be the Purple Heart.
Eastern and Asian cultures Purple is also a color of wealth and nobility in the East. The exception is in Thailand, where purple represents mourning, where a widow wears the color after the death of her husband.
Latin America The theme of sorrow is also evident in South American nations such as Brazil, where purple is associated with mourning and death.
Middle East Wealth and purple are synonymous. In Egypt, the definition of purple also extends to include virtue.
Around the world A lighter shade, amethyst, is considered sacred to Buddha and rosaries are often made from this purple stone in Tibet.
Western cultures (North American and Europe) Pink is the color of femininity and is used to signify the birth of a daughter. It also represents sweetness (it is often the color used for cake or candy shops), childhood or fun.
Eastern and Asian cultures Pink is also considered feminine in the East where it also signifies marriage. In Korea, however, the color is more closely associated with trust. For many years, the Chinese did not recognize the color; it was finally brought into the culture due to increasing Western influence.
Latin America Pink has much looser associations and is often used as a color for buildings, consequently it can have associations with architecture.
Middle East Pink does not have any distinct meaning in Middle Eastern cultures.
Around the world Prison holding cells around the world have been painted pink to help reduce behavioral problems because the color can be mentally stimulating whilst simultaneously being somewhat calming.
Western cultures (North America and Europe) Brown is earthy but can be associated with either health or barrenness. In the United States, it is the color most often used for packaging (think of the highly successful transport company UPS) and food containers. Brown is stable, dependable and wholesome, as association which comes from the color of grains.
Eastern and Asian cultures The most common color association is that of mourning. In Chinese horoscopes, brown is used to represent earth.
Latin America Contrary to the uses of brown in North America, the color has the opposite effect in South America. Brown actually discourages sales in Colombia and is considered disapproving in Nicaragua.
Middle East Brown is harmonious with earth and comfort.
Around the world The meanings associated with brown may be among the most universal in the rainbow; it is frequently called a non-color because of its neutral tendencies and general appeal in design. Note how brown is used on the Washtennaw Community College website – the neutral color is inviting to potential students of almost any origin.
Western cultures (North America and Europe) Black is the color of finality, death, formality and mourning in North American and European cultures. It is also considered powerful and strong and can imply control or force. (Consider the strong look associated with using reverse type.)
Eastern and Asian cultures Black can be connected to masculinity and is the color for boys in China. It also represents wealth, heath and prosperity. In Thailand and Tibet though, black is most closely associated with evil.
Latin America Latin cultures also associate the color (or strictly speaking, tone) with masculinity and is the preferred color for men’s clothing. It is also linked to mourning.
Middle East Black has somewhat contrasting but symbiotic meanings – it represents both rebirth and mourning. Evil and mystery are also associated with black.
Around the world Black is associated with magic and the unknown in almost all cultures.
Western cultures (North America and Europe) White is the color of purity and peace. It is often associated with weddings and is the color most often worn by brides. White is also clean and sterile and used to represent hospitals and even holiness. In Italy however, white is used for funerals and traditionally, white Chrysanthemums are placed at grave sites.
Eastern and Asian cultures White is also the color of death in the East. It is used at funerals and represents sterility, mourning, unhappiness and misfortune.
Latin America White has many of the same associations as in North America and is connected to purity and peace.
Middle East Both purity and mourning are associated with white. In Iran for example, that definition expands to include holiness and peace and in Egypt wearing white is a symbol of a person’s high ranking status.
Around the world The white flag is the universal symbol of truce.
Carrie Cousins is a freelance writer with more than 10 years of experience in the communications industry, including writing for print and online publications, and design and editing. You can connect with Carrie on Twitter @carriecousins.