Join Sean Adams for an in-depth discussion in this video The cultural meaning of color, part of Graphic Design Foundations: Layout and Composition.
One of the challenges we have as designers is that design is often subjective. Color is the most volatile aspect in our toolbox. One person may love avocado green, another may despise it. And these responses are very personal. If I suggest that your favorite color, orange, is bad, you will take it personally. So when dealing with color tread lightly, and allow others to have illogical responses.
We give meaning to colors based on own personal experience. I know that red means romance, but to someone else it reads as anger and blood. I have a special fondness for ocher, because it was the tone of the wallpaper at my grandparents house, but I've never been able to persuade a client to use it, to everyone else it reads as muddy yellow. There are, however, times when the meaning of the color overrides the emotional response.
When the corporate colors are a specific blue and orange, that blue and orange is the right choice, whether you or the client like it. And culturally, certain colors have different meanings. In western traditions, white is the color of purity. In some Asian countries, white means death. So it's important to know who your audience is and what they know. Is the main color on your piece the same color that the client's competitor uses? If so, it's a good idea to find another color that your client can own.
For example, if I were designing a poster for a jewelry company, I would steer clear from Tiffany blue. The fact that color has inherent cultural meaning is a huge positive in your design toolbox. This layout, for a publication celebrating American public schools, uses red and white pencils on a blue background to make a distinctly American story. We used a red cross for a fundraising poster after 9/11. Meaning and color does not have to be that overt, subtle shades on a layout imply less obvious messages.
You may want to convey a natural or rustic tone, in this case, brown, tan and black tell the story. The goal is to stand out in a crowded marketplace like a bookstore, a bright color with strong contrasting tones solves this problem. Or ride the horse the opposite direction. If the audience expects a green cover for a gardening book, standout by switching to magenta. There is no one right way to handle color.
Everyone responds to it differently. I found it best to be aware of the inherent meaning, logical reasons and do what I believe is right. And then be open to the feedback when I show that ocher poster.
- What makes a successful layout?
- Layout elements: shape, line, color, texture, type, and space
- Using balance and tension to create a dynamic layout
- Adding drama with contrast and scale
- Working with proportions: golden section, rule of thirds, etc.
- Creating the right grid for your design
- Choosing simplicity or excess
- Adding an element of surprise
- Making images and typography work together