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Overview of Color Symbolism in Desktop Publishing

written by: Tony J Palazzo•edited by: Amber Neely•updated: 5/25/2011

Every color in the visible spectrum has symbolic meaning. There are certain qualities associated with specific colors, and understanding them will ensure that the colors you choose are consistent with the message you want to convey. Here is a list of colors and what they communicate.

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    Cool Hues to Use

    Color Wheel Split the traditional color wheel in half, and one side of the spectrum contains 'warm' colors (red, orange, and yellow) and the other side contains 'cool' colors (green, blue, and purple.) With this as a starting point, you can determine an appropriate color scheme. Do you want your image to be "hot" (stimulating, intense) or "cool" (relaxed and clear)? Take, for instance, the NASCAR logo. Notice how the warm color yellow builds at the left and culminates in a "hot" red at the first letter in the NASCAR name? There is motion implied, and it resembles a rocket flare. It seems to make sense that a logo for auto racing would use warm colors.

    In contrast, check out the Allstate insurance logo. When you're considering purchasing insurance, you obviously want to be in a calm and serious state of mind, hence the clear, low-key shades of blue. We can get more specific about color symbolism by discussing the emotional and cultural associations of each color individually.

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    'Getting' the Blues

    Color Symbolism: Blue The meaning of blue is straightforward. Planet earth, when viewed from space, is blue. The oceans are blue, and the sky is blue when it's clear. When you think blue, think of the expression "down to earth." Purity of spirit is also associated with blue; the Hindu god Krishna is depicted with blue skin. Consider also "blue laws," which are founded in religion.

    There is, of course, the well-known association with sadness and melancholy feelings. An entire musical genre, "the blues," is named for this hue.

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    Going Green

    Color Symbolism: Green The symbolism of the color green is evident in nature. It's associated with plant life, grass, leaves, and vegetation. Green implies growth, and youthfulness. Anyone considered green is young and not yet "ripened" with age. As a green traffic light means go, getting a metaphorical "green light," means you're clear to proceed.

    There is, however, a negative side to green. As green lies between blue and yellow, it merges with a warm end along the cool side of the spectrum. The shades of green that are nearer to yellow are associated with sickness and negative feelings (i.e. "turning green," and "green with envy"). Hostile fictional archetypes such as witches and aliens often have green skin.

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    Deep Purple

    Color Symbolism: Purple Heart The color purple has a common symbolic attribute with its neighboring cool color, blue. The spiritual element of blue is even more pronounced in purple. It is a prominent color in the stained glass windows of churches, and clergymen wear shades of purple during the sacred seasons of lent and advent.

    Purple is also associated with royalty, nobility, and courage. A symbol of honor in the modern era, the "purple heart" medal is awarded to United States military personnel who are wounded in battle. Creativity and individuality are additional characteristics associated with the color purple.

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    The Warm Colors: Red

    Color Symbolism: Red The color symbolism of red comes "from the heart." Qualities associated with red are passion and heat. To "see red" is to be blinded with rage. The passionate qualities of red are also symbolized in conjunction with the traditional heart symbol (as used in the I love NY logo).

    Of equal intensity are the symbols of danger in red. A road sign that is primarily red, such as a stop sign or a "wrong way" sign are meant to grab our attention and demand an action. A red rotating beacon is an alarm or emergency signal. Phrases like "red alert" and "code red" signify emergency situations as well.

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    Mellow Yellow

    Color Symbolism: Yellow Yellow symbolizes energy, and joy. Bright yellow is associated mostly with the sun, while a deeper gold hue represents wealth and success. A "golden age," is one of happiness, peace, and good fortune.

    Yellow is inherently the brightest hue, and is the easiest to visually perceive. Like red, it is used to get our attention, but only to advise caution. Consider a yellow traffic light, a yellow road sign, and police or construction tape.

    Yellow is also strongly associated with cowardice.

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    Agent Orange

    Color Symbolism: Orange Situated between Yellow and Red on the color wheel, orange evokes the qualities of both colors. It is cheerful and enegetic, like yellow, and also intense, like red. Orange is associated with the fall season, when leaves change to orange shades, and pumpkins are carved.

    Moving beyond the three primary and three secondary colors, brown is the color of stability. Black represents power and sophistication, but it can also represent misfortune (i.e. Black Friday, a black cat). White is immaculate and pure. Gray represents wisdom, neutrality, and also pessimism. Pink has the combined attributes of red and white to symbolize a childlike enthusiam, and good health (i.e. "in the pink").

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    As you can see, a lot of the meaning implied by color is derived from nature and is self-evident, while other representations are esoteric and arbitrary. Keeping to the general associations of colors will ensure that you evoke an appropriate response.

    Image credits: All images used are in the public domain.