Colour me Fuzzy Wuzzy

It’s hard to know exactly how many colours there are. My Google search brought up answers that ranged from 3 to 16 million!

Colour is a complex subject with many strands, some of which I am going to talk about below. It is a topic that stretches far beyond the 7 colours of the rainbow. Crayola, for example officially have 133 different coloured crayons, including Fuzzy Wuzzy, Granny Smith Apple, Macaroni and Cheese, Purple Mountain’s Majesty, and Outer Space.

Beneath the surface.

I’m not interested in the science of colour though, I’m interested in how those colours are associated with the world around us, such as the four seasons, our favourite rooms in the house, our favourite clothes, and our favourite websites.

There is a reason we are drawn to the red jumper rather then the yellow jumper. Most notably because red and yellow express very different messages, but in order to connect the colours to the messages we must gather this understanding from somewhere, from the world around us. As colours and their meanings are so engraved in our cultures, we often don’t realise that colours make us feel a certain way or influence our decisions, it becomes so natural that it is a subconcious process.

Colours impact on our moods too.

Stories, brands, cultures, they all give meaning to colour but we often overlook this. For that reason, the true value of colour is arguably, invisible. Colours undoubtedly mask our world but how often do we stop and consider what messages we are conveying by choosing one colour over another?

It is well documented that in psychiatric and mental health hospitals, they paint the walls in muted tones such as cool blues, as this creates a calm mood for the patients. That’s how powerful colour can be.

Colour in Culture.

Beyond all the studies into how our brains and eyes receive and process colours, and further to the issues of hue, saturation, brightness, and contrast, colours have cultural, symbolic, and religious associations which, if we don’t consider during design, means we could stand to offend our target audience by getting it wrong.

The brand colour for Thai Airways is purple. In Thailand purple is a colour of mourning. Mourning and flying are not two things you would connect in order to increase your customer base! In the West though, purple is associated with royalty and luxury, and even magic. Therefore, if Thai Airways see their target audience as people outside of Thailand, then they are saying to them ‘ we provide a luxurious service’.

Connotation and denotation.

The denotation of something is its literal meaning. For colour then, the denotation of red is red, for blue it is blue and so on.

The connotation is the meaning that is implied or suggested. For red the connotation varies depending on the context
it is viewed in, but most commonly red connotes danger or love.  It is the mood often associated with the object.

Take this rose for example:


The denotation here is a red rose with a green stem as that is literally what it is. The connotation however, is passion, love and romance, as a red rose is a symbol of these emotions. That is what a red rose has come to represent.

Applying this to colours rather than objects can help us make informed decisions when choosing colour in website design.

Is this a black square?

Black Square

Yes it is if we look at it literally. The denotation here is the absence of colour. It is simply a square that is black.

The connotation however could be fear of the unknown, the dark, a void, space and so on. Perhaps not as obvious as we first thought.

Meaning through relevance

Beyond the descriptive and mood words, colours have significance in other topics. Sports teams are always a good example. In Wales for example, red is a colour that our national sports teams wear so for us it is very much a ‘Welsh’ colour. In Scotland it is blue, white for England and Green for Ireland.

What this clearly demonstrates is that relevance will influence the significance of colours. Red is relevant to me as I am Welsh. Red is also associated with love, Christmas and danger so there are very different contexts within which red communicates very different messages.

The colours we choose in our designs should be informed decisions rather than ‘I prefer purple to pink’ or ‘just use green’. We should think about what invisible meanings the colours will bring to our sites, what audiences and cultures they will be seen by, and undoubtedly, will they turn my design into something beautiful. Colour combinations can communicate emotions without the need to show actual objects.

If we understand that different colours have different qualities then this will directly impact the designs that are produced, but what should never be underestimated is making informed decisions on what colours to use in web design based on cultural representations and the hidden meanings of colours.


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