How Colors Speak



… a bolt form the blue…
… the black sheep of the family…
… to be browned off…
… a golden opportunity…
… paint the town red…

These are just a few of the many idiomatic expressions in the English language that use color. While some of these may need explanation for their literal meaning, little would you wonder how a particular color gets to be used where you see it.


“A bolt from the blue” means something sort of a surprise, owing to the word “bolt”. The English teacher will tell her pupils that a lightning bolt has the characteristic of coming very unexpectedly, which is why it is used to denote surprise in this expression. But there is no need to elaborate on the “blue” part because it is understood that what is figuratively meant here is the sky.

Colors speak. They convey words. They carry different meanings. One single color may impart several different messages. To demonstrate this point, let’s go back to the color blue. Because blue is the color of the sky and of clear running waters, it speaks of calmness and serenity. But it is the same color used in expressions to mean loneliness and sadness. Are you feeling blue?


How a color conveys a message is influenced by a number of factors. Most often times, it is what we call natural association that tells us what a color means. For example, earth is brown, blood is red, and vegetation is green. So that may mean brown is for “soiled”, red is for “barbaric”, and green is for “productivity”. We have been taught these associations when we were in school. But even those who were never formally educated have gained this knowledge, too, simply by looking around, provided of course, the person knows which color brown is! ^_^


There is also what the scholars of color refer to as psychological association. Now this is a bit more complex because it embraces a horde of perturbing determinants. By psychological association, we mean those attributes, meanings and uses that a particular color is given through the dictates of society, culture, religion, politics and fads.


Let’s looks at black, for example. Generally speaking, black has an almost global connotation of death and mourning. Some societies, however, reserve black for partying. This has been made stronger by fashion fads, dictating the use of black suits and gowns for the most elegant events. Furthermore, little bits of detail will put in big differences. So if you opt to don a black number to receive an Oscar, make sure the cut and style of your gown would not make you look like Morticia Adams.



Another example would be the color green. In Ireland, green has the symbolic meaning of good luck. This probably comes from the fact that green is the color of the “lucky” four-leaf-clover. If you are lucky enough, you might catch a leprechaun. Take note, he is dressed in green clothes! ^_^ Now to (sort of) contradict this, green also carries the symbolic meaning of seasickness. Please don’t ask why…the reason is really sickening!


Physical attributes. One can change the meaning of a color by making some alterations with its tonal depth, size and shape, background color, and surface texture (to name a few).



Let’s examine red. As stated earlier, red is the color of blood and hence carries with it an aggressive mood. If you see red as spills or splats, it looks bloody and gruesome. But give it a glossy or metallic finish and it becomes savvy. Red is a strong color and has a commanding effect. We see it everywhere as STOP signs. When a message needs to be emphasized or when some calendar days are considered special, they are written in red. It is a color so energetic on text that it could show strong emotion such as wrath. On the other hand, it looks playfully cheerful when presented as red polka dots. Give it the shape of a heart or make it a box for chocolates and your red now says, “Happy Valentine’s.”


How colors speak is indeed influenced by a myriad of factors. You can use common sense or mere gut feeling to figure out what a color implies. But if you are in the serious business of design, this is something you would have to take into detailed consideration.

Have fun with colors!

^_^ Gracey

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