The Hidden Meaning of Colors

meaning of colors

On the Web, particularly when dealing with international visitors, it’s easy to get messed
up by a potentially tricky issue: the meaning of color. Artists, philosophers, scientists,
religious thinkers, and others from all walks of life have pondered this issue for centuries,
but no consensus has been reached. The nineteenth century German writer and thinker
Goethe spent a large portion of his life developing a theory of colors—most of which has

been consigned to the dustbin of philosophy by modern thinkers. Even setting aside
highly codified color/concept schemas—such as those used in Tibetan religious art or
the changing colors of the liturgical seasons in Western churches—it is difficult to apply
specific meanings to specific colors. In the West, black is largely associated with death
and somber thoughts—while in Japan, the color associated with death is white, a complete
reversal of the Western viewpoint. Considering that the Web is an international medium
of communication
, it may not be practical to take culturally accepted color meanings for
granted. Bearing in mind the Western cultural background of this book’s production,
Table 13-6 lists some common meanings people may associate with certain colors.

Even without the complications of cultural associations, Web conventions also
use color to convey meanings. The significance of hyperlink colors is brought up
throughout this book—people are used to clicking on blue text to go somewhere else,
and they know that purple text means they’ve already been there. Changing the color
of hyperlinks is always a questionable proposition, especially if the audience for the
site are not experienced users—they may see light blue text and never think to click,
because they know that regular links are blue. However the messages may be subtler
and more difficult to pin down. Reflect on what you think when you see a Web page
with red text on a black background. How often does this make you think “Amateur!”
in terms of the site’s designer? How do you respond to sites that do not have a white
background on text-heavy pages? Every Web user brings a host of unacknowledged
expectations about what colors, or combinations of colors, mean in the browser window

Color is important to Web designers, as it makes pages both pleasing and meaningful to
visitors. Unfortunately, color use on the Web can be difficult. With the wide variability of
viewing environments, designers need to continue to rely on the 216-color browser-safe
palette. Hybrid colors and color depth detection can help us break the 216-color limit
safely, but even then things may not work. Without color correction technology that can
deal with differences in the user’s viewing environment, color reproduction on the Web
is far from an exact science. This is a rather unfortunate situation. Color preciseness is
important if we want to make sure that the blue shirt users buy online is exactly the
shade of blue they thought it was. Just think of the cost of returns due to a serious color
shift! With the eventual introduction of color profiles in CSS (and PNG images, discussed
in the next chapter), things should improve. Yet even when color is displayed properly, it
is easy to misuse color by not using harmonious colors, providing too little contrast, or
not considering the meaning of color