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Colour Associations for Web Designers

I recently found a fascinating article showing research on people’s perceptions, associations and preferences for colours, by Joe Hallock.

Colour Wheel: colour associations for web design

The colour wheel

He outlines research on colour perceptions and associations, focusing on the work of Bradford J. Hall (Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communications 2002).

Faber Birren

Previously, Faber Birren (1961) had stated that colours were inherently associated with certain sense perceptions (cold, warm, wet, dry etc) due to direct connections with the earthly elements (water, sun, earth, fire).

Great agreement was found amongst participants in a survey showing that red/orange colours are commonly associated with warmth, yet there was more diversity in associations with coolness. The entire colour range from yellow, through green and blue to purple, could be described as “cold”, with much variation between individual responses.

Later, Birren claimed this was a result of the effects of different wavelengths of light on the brain, with red having a stimulating effect and blues having a calming effect. He claimed the variety of colours in the “cool” section of responses merely reflected the number of colours within the specific “calming” energy range.

Birren also noted the colour associations found in language (green with envy, red with rage, etc), and postulated that this would be crucial in individuals’ emotional responses to colours.

Modern research reveals the colour of words

Joe Hallock summarises a study done by Hall more recently, in which participants were asked to chose colours to describe words not normally associated with colours in the English language. Some of the results are surprising and show that merely assuming that the use in common phrases reflects the emotional impact of colours can be erroneous.

For example, the word “TRUST” was strongly associated with white and blue – whereas Birren had emphasised its link with depression. Although not stated in Hallock’s review, it must be remembered that this was a study of English-language speakers, and that in other cultures colour associations may be different and could have perhaps given different results. In the Middle East and North Africa, white is associated with mourning and death – perhaps not a choice for “trust”.

“SECURITY” also showed a strong leaning towards blue – also a surprising result for similar reasons, although the words “trust” and “security” do in fact have related meanings.

“SPEED” was heavily associated with red, and other “hot” colours – a finding more in line with Birren’s hypothesis. In the English language red is associated with rage and ferocity, and could be interpreted as energetic and implying a call to action.

For words related to objects the results were as follows:
“CHEAP” objects were thought to be more likely to be orange, brown or yellow – in fact, the chart corresponds with the chart of people’s least favourite colours. “HIGH QUALITY” was associated with black or blue, and “HIGH TECHNOLOGY” with black, blue and grey. “RELIABILITY” was also associated with black and blue.

Words describing personality traits and emotions produced theses results:
“BRAVERY” was associated with purple, red and blue in almost equal measure, whereas “FEAR” was thought to be represented by red or black. “FUN”, in contrast, was associated with very bright colours, including the primary colours but in particular yellow, orange, red and purple.

Colours that we all love … and hate

Favourite and Least Favourite colours also showed a great deal of correspondence – with blue the overall winner for favourite colour, and green and purple following a distant second. Indeed, blue and purple were the most popular colours with women, who showed more preference for green over purple earlier in life and later tended to prefer purple to green. However, men tended to dislike purple and this showed on the chart of males’ least favourite colours.

Women also prefer yellow to orange, whereas this preference is reversed in males. This may be related to gender differences in colour perception. The preference for blue generally increases with age. Blue, purple and green formed the majority of responses to the favourite colour question.

As previously mentioned, yellow orange and brown featured strongly as least favourite colours, although men also tended to dislike purple.

Colour and states of mind

Hallock finishes by mentioning that bright lights predispose an organism to activity, whereas low lights are preferable for tasks requiring mental focus. Studies have shown that red lighting slows down the perception of the passage of time, whereas cooler colours speed it up. Objects also appear larger when they are reddish in colour.

Finally, Hallock gives two case studies: an online toystore (bright, fun colours) and a breast cancer awareness website (comforting purples and pinks).

This is only a brief overview of the information in this fascinating article: read it in full on

Thanks Joe!

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 at 4:59 pm and is filed under web design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Colour Associations for Web Designers”

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