Color & Culture :
Color is a very subjective thing. How someone ‘sees’ a color is not easily measured, and may be very different between individuals. Although we may not all see a color the same, within our cultural group the emotional response to the color is surprisingly common. While there are still commonalities in the meanings of colors around the world, it may also differ greatly between cultures.
Single Color Meanings
A single color may have totally contrasting meanings, depending on where in the world you live. For example, white is perceived as purity and virtue in western society, while in many Asian countries it represents mourning. In the Middle East, it may represent both! The table below, modified from several sources(1, 2), highlights the differences in the meanings of colors between different cultural groups. Some references gave very different meaning to colors, and all these have been included in the table. For example, one reference gave yellow a cowardly meaning1, while another said it indicated joy and happiness(2).
The color of wedding dresses around the world is a good example of the contrasting symbolic colors used. In Australia and other westernized countries, white is the standard color, representing purity. In India, red is the color of purity, and is used in wedding outfits (2), though usually to complement white (3). Even in western society, the colors have changed over time. In the 15th century Renaissance masterpiece, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, painted by Jan Van Eyck, the bride wears green as a symbol of her fertility (3).
As each culture developed within its own pockets of population, they each developed their own meanings of colors Despite this, there is still a lot of commonality between traditional cultural meanings of colors
For some colors, it is obvious to see where the symbolism originated – the green of lush growing plants representing fertility, and the unadulterated color white representing purity. Also, in general, cool colors such as blue and green tend to have been given a positive meaning, while warm colors such as red and orange negative meanings.
The Globalization of Color
The meanings of colors have changed over the years as the influence of cultures has spread. In the recent past, the world is becoming more westernized with the influence of TV and the internet.
There is a potential danger with the use of color on the internet, as the World Wide Web goes to all corners of the globe. The web is dominated by sites from the USA and other western countries, and therefore the colors used will be influenced by designers mostly brought up in a western culture. This may result in confusing meanings to some web users. The web design feature at About.com2 suggests that blue can be considered the safest global color, due to its mostly positive meanings throughout the world.
Where there is commonality between cultures in the meanings of colors, it can be used to standardize symbols. In traffic signals, the green to ‘go’ and red to ‘stop’ can be found throughout the world. Even though green does not indicate ‘go’ in all cultures, it does have a positive connotation. Conversely, red has mostly negative meanings. A red circle with a cross through it is universally used to indicate not to do something. See this interesting Collection of Don't Signs.
Regional Specific Colors
The colors used to represent a country, such as those used on the flag, can have very significant symbolism within that country. The colors of the stars and stripes in the USA at the moment are very potent symbolism of patriotism. At the time of the Olympics, country specific colors are very noticeable. The green and gold of Australia, although not components of our flag, are great symbols of national pride. Even at a regional level, the colors of the local football team can have strong meanings to their supporters.
It is not only the individual colors themselves that have significance. The meaning of a color can change significantly when in combination with another color For example, while red is a mostly a negative color in western society, indicating danger - when in combination with white or green it indicates Christmas, and when in combination with pink it signifies Valentines Day(3).
While the cultural meanings of colors have been briefly covered in this article, there are still individual differences that are difficult to predict. In design, you have to be aware of your market, and take into account generalizations on the meanings of color for that market, but you cannot know how each individual will respond to your design colors. That will always be one of the challenges of this field.