Colour 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 colour. Colours have a variety of associations within North American culture alone, and can mean something radically different to Japanese or Middle Eastern readers, where colour meanings are frequently much more specific and defined.

It is important to understand how colour associations vary from culture to culture, and within different possible audiences, when planning a website.

Understanding colour can be a tricky challenge and many colour meanings can almost seem contradictory — particularly in the West, where colour meanings are extremely broad. When working with colour, remember to think about context and how colour 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 colour of passion and excitement. It has both positive and negative associations — danger, love and excitement and when used with connection with the former Eastern bloc, 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 colour are a combination of different meanings from other cultures.

Eastern and Asian cultures Red is the colour of happiness, joy and celebration. It is often the colour worn by brides on their wedding day because it is thought to bring luck, long life and happiness. It is also a colour often associated with Chinese restaurants in the United States, because of the associations with luck and happiness. Specifically in India, the colour 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 colour of religion when used with white.

Middle East Red evokes feelings of danger and caution. Some also consider it the colour 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 colour of harvest and autumn. In the United States, for example, the colour 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 colour, the most common use of orange is to signify royalty.

Eastern and Asian cultures The hue, especially saffron (a yellowish orange that matches the colour 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 colour.

Middle East Orange is associated with mourning and loss.

Around the world The colour can also have religious associations: It is the colour 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 colour 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 colours 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 colour is considered sacred and imperial. In Japan, that definition is expanded to include courage (which is expected of rulers) and is the colour 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 colour are universally associated with money, quality and success in most world cultures.




Western cultures (North America and Europe) The most popular colour for bank logos is blue because it represents trust and authority. The colour 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 colour of Krishna — a central figure in Hinduism and one of the most popular Hindu gods. Many Indian sports teams use the colour as a symbol of strength. Unlike in the U.S., where blue is associated with men, it is considered a feminine colour in China.

Latin America Because of the high Catholic population of Central and South America, blue is often associated with religion as the colour 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 colour of trust and serenity in Mexico, and is the colour of soap in Colombia.

Middle East Blue is safe and protecting. It is the colour associated with Heaven, spirituality and immortality.

Around the world In Thailand, blue is the colour associated with Friday. Blue is often considered the most positive and safest colour for a global audience. Skype, the international web-based telephone company, uses a blue colour scheme for each of its sites around the world.




Western cultures (North America and Europe) Green is the colour of the Irish (think St. Patrick’s Day and it is also the national colour 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 colour 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 colour 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 colour 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 colour of money and is often associated with jealousy. Green, superficially olive green, is the colour of almost every active military in the world.




Western cultures (North America and Europe) Purple is the colour 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 colour of honour; the military’s highest award is considered to be the Purple Heart.

Eastern and Asian cultures Purple is also a colour of wealth and nobility in the East. The exception is in Thailand, where purple represents mourning, where a widow wears the colour 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 colour of femininity and is used to signify the birth of a daughter. It also represents sweetness (it is often the colour 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 colour is more closely associated with trust. For many years, the Chinese did not recognize the colour; 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 colour 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 behavioural problems because the colour 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 colour 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 colour of grains.

Eastern and Asian cultures The most common colour 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 colour 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-colour because of its neutral tendencies and general appeal in design. Note how brown is used on the Washtennaw Community College website – the neutral colour is inviting to potential students of almost any origin.




Western cultures (North America and Europe) Black is the colour 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 colour 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 colour (or strictly speaking, tone) with masculinity and is the preferred colour 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 colour of purity and peace. It is often associated with weddings and is the colour 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 colour 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.

Arcticle by by Carrie Cousins



Designing with colour

The process by which colour is chosen and utilized in a design has a profound effect on interior space. The designer’s decisions can drastically change the spatial understanding of a project and also influence how it is navigated. When used with knowledge and intent, colour can add perceived weight to surfaces, alter the basic proportions of a room, and variously be a calming or exciting factor.

Elements such as furniture can emphasize the volumetric reading of a room. Here, the chairs, matched with the red walls, draw attention to the room’s dimensions.

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Painting a continuous length of a space with a single colour emphasizes the planar elements within an environment.

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Adding colour to a sequence of parallel walls also reinforces the planar elements in a space.

11 designing with colour 03Colour can be employed to make certain aspects of a design stand out. For instance, elements such as trim, mouldings, and furniture take on more significance when they are coloured in stark contrast with their surroundings.

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Transitions between spaces can be highlighted by using very bold, bright hues, or made to recede when matched to the colour of an adjacent surface.

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Adding colour to the lower half of a space can provide a demarcation line for elements such as furniture and art.

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Adding colour to the upper regions of a space can reduce the perceived height of a room.

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COLOR, SPACE, STYLE, © 2007 by Rockport Publishers, Inc.

Impact of colour on our life

The world around us is drenched with colour. It influences how we respond physically and psychologically to what we see. One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a colour is the ongoing impact it will have on your emotions and thought processes.

Colour has the power to effect the whole mood and feel of a room. When trying to put a colour scheme together, look to the colour experts who have already done the work for you.

For example: a piece of fabric whose colours have been blended by a textile designer or a piece of artwork that evokes the mood and feel that you are trying to capture. Anything that creates a pleasant emotional response can be the perfect inspiration piece to get you started.

When you want to make a small room look larger, avoid using high contrasts in your colour choices. Keep the values, i.e. light value vs. dark value of the colours in the room the same.

Here is another example in relation to an office environment, the colours you choose to use in your office environments will have a similar effect on your visitors/clients and staff. These effects are subliminal and instinctive. They can create either a good or bad perception of your business. It is important to understand the message of the colours you choose, to ensure your desired impact is created.

Below is a table running the positive and negative feelings associated with different colours as well as office areas where they may have the most impact.

08 Impact of colour 02


Visual perception of colours

There are three types of colour receptors in our eye: red, green and blue.

But how do we see the amazing kaleidoscope of other colours that make up our world?

Colm Kelleher explains how humans can see everything from auburn to aquamarine.

“see video”

07 Colour visualisation 05

This is just the beginning of colour theory. To give you a glimpse of how complex it gets, consider this:

Once visual information arrives in our brain, it goes through a whole battery of subconscious processes before we become consciously aware of what we are seeing. These processes allow us to discard huge amounts of extraneous information, build a coherent 3D model of our environment, detect edges and object forms, and make deductions about lighting. In general, this is incredibly useful as it allows us to go about our lives without needing to consciously try and figure out where the edges of a table are, or how high up in a building we are if we look out the window.

However, as designers working with colour, there are some important aspects of this subconscious processing we need to understand, which basically all relate to the fact that the same colour can look very different depending on its context. For example, placing two contrasting colours next to each other will make them both appear more “colourful”

When a colour is juxtaposed with other colours, we perceive it as a different colour. For example, most people will say the small square on the left is orange, whereas the one on the right is brown:

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Actually, the squares are exactly the same colour!!!

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It gets worse, because the brain projects abstract things it knows about the natural world onto your perception of colour. For example, we know intuitively that shadows artificially darken colours, so our brains automatically account for this in our perception of those colours. (It’s called “colour constancy.”) For example, you know that the dark and light colours on this hot air balloon are “the same:”

07 Colour visualisation 02

But it also results in optical illusions so powerful that even when you know the trick you still can’t see it correctly. Like this: Which square is darker: A or B?

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In fact A and B are the same colour (#787878), but you can’t see it even when you know this. To prove it to myself I had to open this picture in an image editor and actually move one square over another to see it was the same.


Colour in the making, Black dot publishing, UK,2013

Colour Psychology

“Colours, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.”  Pablo Picasso

When you understand colour meaning and that everything you choose to decorate your home with, has a direct effect on how your environment supports you, you will be better equipped to create a happy, healthy home and succeed your interior design schemes. On the other hand, you also avoid the opposite; dull, draining or tired.

05 Colour psycho-color-meanings


How the colour blue affects us physically and mentally.

  • Calm, sedate and can lower blood pressure.
  • Sense of cooling.
  • Builds confidence.
  • Enhancement of intuition.
  • Most productive colour.

05 Colour psycho-color-blue


How the colour red affects us mentally and physically.

  • Increases enthusiasm.
  • Stimulates energy, passion and strong emotion.
  • Encourages action, confidence and appetite.
  • A sense of protection from fears and anxiety.
  • Some cultures consider red to represent luck so maybe you feel lucky.

05 Colour psycho-color-red


How the colour green affects us physically and mentally.

  • Soothing, and restful on the eye.
  • Relaxing mentally as well as physically.
  • Helps alleviate depression, nervousness and anxiety.
  • Offers a deep sense of renewal, self-control and harmony.

05 Colour psycho-color-green


How the colour green affects us physically and mentally.

  • Can stimulate feelings relating to summer.
  • Stimulate hunger and enthusiasm.
  • Relates to meditation and higher self.
  • Creativity.

An accent wall can be the main focal point of your room.

05 Colour psycho-color-orange


How the colour brown affects us physically and mentally.

  • Feeling of wholesomeness and practicality .
  • Stability and reliability .
  • Grounded with a connection to Earth.
  • Offers a sense orderliness.

Timeless and classic therefore brown never gets old.

05 Colour psycho-color-brown


How the colour purple affects us mentally and physically.

  • Uplifting.
  • Calming to mind and nerves.
  • Offers a sense of spirituality and wisdom.
  • Encourages creativity and success.

05 Colour psycho-color-purple


How the colour yellow affects us mentally and physically.

  • Mentally stimulating.
  • Stimulates the nervous system.
  • Activates memory.
  • Encourages communication.
  • Is the colour most likely to cause eye strain and it is prone to make babies cry.

05 Colour psycho-color-yellow


How the colour white affects us mentally and physically.

  • Aids mental clarity.
  • Encourages us to clear clutter or obstacles.
  • Evokes purification of thoughts or actions.
  • Enables fresh beginnings.

05 Colour psycho-color-white


How the colour black affects us mentally and physically.

  • Feeling inconspicuous.
  • A restful emptiness.
  • Mysterious evoking a sense of potential and possibility.
  • Sophistication.

05 Colour psycho-color-black


Effects of light on color

Colour Temperature Chart

The effect of lighting sources on the perception of colour is an important point to take into account when choosing colours.

Colour temperature is a standard method of describing colours for use in a range of situations and with different equipment. Colour temperatures are normally expressed in units called kelvins (K).

04 light effect-colour-temperature

The Effects of Lighting on Colour Perception in Art

Natural Light

Art in natural sunlight looks good but is vulnerable to ultraviolet damage. Artists love to work in natural light because it shows colours at their most vibrant. Natural light is white light, without the hints of colour found in artificial light, so colours appear true. However, displaying artwork in natural light presents one major problem: natural light contains high levels of infrared and ultraviolet (UV) rays. The same wavelengths of light that cause a sunburn also fade and deteriorate paints and textiles, so art should never be stored or displayed near a window or in direct sunlight.

Fluorescent Lighting

Fluorescent bulbs are not recommended for displaying art. Fluorescent light has a greenish tinge, so colours in artwork do not appear true. Like natural light, fluorescent bulbs emit strong UV rays, causing rapid fading of colours. Experts do not recommend displaying works of art under fluorescent lights for any period of time.

04 light effect-fluorescent

Incandescent Lighting

Incandescent light enhances warm colours but not cool ones. Incandescent light has a warm, yellow tint, so it enhances warm colours like red, orange and yellow in artwork. It is much less harmful than natural sunlight or fluorescent light, but it is not ideal for all works of art. Incandescent light’s warm tone detracts from work with mostly cool colours like blue, green and purple.

04 light effect-incandescent

Halogen Lighting

Halogen lights designed specifically for art may be the best lighting option. Halogen bulbs emit a strong, white light similar to natural sunlight, so colours look vibrant and true. Damaging rays are minimized, but the jury is still out on whether long-term exposure to high wattages might cause fading. However, newer halogen bulbs, designed specifically for lighting artwork, redirect damaging wavelengths. Low-watt halogen lighting is a good compromise between displaying art to its best advantage and protecting it from damage.

04 light effect-halogene

LED Lighting

Due to recent technology advances, in the last 10 years LEDs have become prime contenders for replacing the kinds of lighting museums have used for most of the 20th century. For general lighting, digitally controlled multi-chip LED systems offer many advantages such as chromaticity control, better light quality, and higher efficiency.

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“Example of the affect of light on colours”


Schubert, J. K. Kim, “Solid State Light Sources Getting Smart,” Science 308, 1274-1278 (2005).

Coulour mixing

There are two types of colour mixing: Additive and Subtractive. (see Colour basis)

Mixing primary colours together will create a secondary colour, a secondary colour with a primary colour will result to a tertiary colour.

The addition of black, or white will vary the colour tone and mixing complementary colour together will result to a desaturation of the colour, a neutral grey.

03 colour mixing

The practice of colour mixing is the best way to familiarize with the relationship existing between the different colours.

“Blue & orange complementary colour mixing Video” 

Notes: Colour mixing is particularly relevant when engaging in digital work. Often, there is a difference between what is displayed on a screen and what is printed.

“RGB, CMYK and PMS use in digital printing video”


Color and how to use it, 2010,By William F.Powel

Colour system

Colour system

Throughout history, humans have been creating system for identifying and organising colour.

The colour wheel is the basic tool for combining colours. The colour wheel is designed so that virtually any colours you pick from it will look good together. Over the years, many variations of the basic design have been made, but the most common version is a wheel of 12 colours based on the RYB (or artistic) colour model.


02 Colour system color-wheel-300

Traditionally, there are a number of colour combinations that are considered especially pleasing. These are called colour harmonies or colour chords and they consist of two or more colours with a fixed relation in the colour wheel.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colours

PRIMARY COLOURS are red, yellow and blue.

SECONDARY COLOURS (green, orange and purple) are created by mixing two primary colours.

TERTIARY COLOURS are created by mixing primary and secondary colours.

Properties of Colour

The scientific description of colour includes all of the relevant properties of a colour subjectively and objectively. The subjective description includes the hue, saturation, and lightness or brightness of a colour.

HUE refers to what is commonly called colour, i.e., red, green, blue-green, orange, etc.

SATURATION refers to the richness of a hue as compared to a grey of the same brightness; this is also known as chroma.

VALUE measures the brightness of an opaque object on a scale from dim to bright or from black to white.

02 Colour system-hue-value-saturation

Colour Temperature

Colour, inherently, has temperature. Colour can be described as being warm (reds, oranges, yellows) or cold (blues, greens). Neutrals (whites, greys) also have ranges of temperatures.Whites can shift in tone from cool to warm, and the change in temperature can enhance and tie together a colour scheme. Greys, too, have temperature. In the Pantone colour system, cool greys tend toward blue, while warm greys gradate toward brown.

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Colour Schemes

Colour schemes are the result of turning colour combinations into a set of rules for an interior palette. Grounded in colour theory, the designer can creatively select and organize colour in harmonious combinations. In the abstract-that is, when colour is not tied to a material-there are six “classic” combinations of colour: monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, triadic, and tetradic. The examples below use a full-saturation colour wheel, but the designer can vary both saturation and brightness.

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Colour in the making, Black dot publishing, UK,2013

Color and how to use it, 2010,By William F.Powel

Colour basis

What is this? How it is produced?

 Colour basis-perceptionColour basis-wavelength-figure

Colour is a property of light that depends on wavelength. When light falls on an object, some of it is absorbed and some is reflected. The apparent colour of an opaque object depends on the wavelength of the light that it reflects; e.g., a red object observed in daylight appears red because it reflects only the waves producing red light. An opaque object that reflects all wavelengths appears white; one that absorbs all wavelengths appears black. Black and white are not generally considered true colours; black is said to result from the absence of colour, and white from the presence of all colours mixed together.Colour basis-colour absorbtion

Additive Colour Colours whose beams of light in various combinations can produce any of the colour sensations are called primary, or spectral, colours. The process of combining these colours is said to be additive: the sensations produced by different wavelengths of light are added together. The additive primaries of light are red, green, and blue-violet. White can be produced by combining all three primary colours. Any two colours whose light together produces white are called complementary colours, e.g., yellow and blue-violet, or red and blue-green.

Colour basis-additivecolor

Subtractive Colour When pigments or dyes are mixed, the resulting sensations differ from those of the transmitted primary colours. The process in this case is “subtractive,” since the pigments subtract or absorb some of the wavelengths of light. With transparent dyes, like our Fibre Reactive Dyes that we use for Tie-Dye, Cyan (blue-green), Magenta (red-violet), and Yellow and are called subtractive primaries, or primary colours. This is called the CMY system, and you use a CMY colour wheel. (With more opaque pigmented products, like our fabric paints, use traditional Red, Yellow and Blue as primaries and use a Red, Yellow, Blue colour wheel.) A mixture of cyan and yellow pigments yields green, the only colour not absorbed by one pigment or the other. A mixture of the three primary pigments produces black. These subtractive primary colours are the ones we use when dyeing, and the Fibre Reactive Dye equivalents are Turquoise, Fuchsia, and Lemon Yellow.

Colour basis-subtractive


Color and how to use it, 2010,By William F.Powel