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Red lanterns Chinese New Year in Malaysia
Red lanterns adorn a street in Sabah, Malaysia, to celebrate the Chinese New Year

Colour symbolism

An individual colour can have different meanings in different cultures. For example, in parts of Africa yellow signifies high rank, in India it can represent commerce, and in many Western cultures yellow is a term used to signify cowardice, amongst other things. So context is everything, and in addition to the traditional meanings in different cultures, related to birth, death and marriage, there are extra layers of meaning from international marketing and communication – such as the bright red of Coca-Cola, or the yellow arches of McDonald’s.

According to Benjamin Whorf’s Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, the language a person speaks determines how he or she experiences the world. This can affect how someone perceives colour. For example, the Shona language in Zimbabwe does not distinguish between red and orange. There seems to be a pattern, however, in the order in which all languages recognise colours: all languages appear to have a name for black and white, and if a third colour is recognised, that is red, and next comes yellow or green. This degree of elaboration in recognising colours seems to also be related to gender: in one study Nepali women could list more name colours than Nepali men, and it is suggested this might be culturally related, as Nepalese women traditionally wear more colourful clothing than men.

Psychologist E R Jaensch’s research suggests that the climate too has an affect on our colour preferences. People who live in sunny climates prefer warm, bright colours, whereas those from places with less sunlight prefer cooler, less saturated colours.

Do you agree with Jaensch’s research? Does climate affect your own colour preferences?

Global colour meanings

There are many websites discussing what colour means in other countries. A listing of colour meanings from around the world, with some great images to illustrate them, can be found on the Shutterstock website.

Olivia Briggs writing in the Huffington Post lists the significance of red, yellow, blue, green, purple, orange and pink around the world in this article.

Talking of pink, she says that although it’s widely accepted in Western cultures that it’s the colour for femininity and romance, in Japan, pink relates more to men than women, although it’s worn by both genders. In Korea, it symbolizes trust, and in Latin America, it’s symbolic to architecture. For many years, pink was an unrecognised color in China until it emerged into the culture due to increasing Western influences – the Chinese word for it translates as “foreign color.”

Colour on the world-wide web

Marketeers and web designers need to take into account the significance of their colour choices for products, so as to appeal to the global market. There is much advice on the internet for web designers to help them choose the right colours, such as this chart by Jeremy Girard for aboutTech.

He points out that in some cases, a colour is also associated with another “thing”. For example, a “white dove” in western cultures symbolises peace. Also, sometimes it’s the colour in combination with another colour that creates the association, such as red and green symbolising Christmas in the West.

What are the most powerful colour symbols where you live?

Colour and language

Mario De Bortoli and Jesus Maroto have compared expressions in different European languages using colour references, and discovered that some expressions are common to all the languages: for example a white flag (meaning surrender), and red heat, and white heat, all have common meanings in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. However, a white night is sleepless in French, Italian and Spanish, but not in English, and blue jokes turn green in Spain. More examples, with an extensive chart of colour symbolism per country can be found in:

Colours Across Cultures: Translating Colours in Interactive Marketing Communications, by Mario De Bortoli & Jesús Maroto.

What are the most powerful colour symbols where you live?

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This article is from the free online course:

The Power of Colour

KLC School of Design