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Colour Theory : The Meaning of Colour

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Colour in design is very subjective. What evokes one reaction in one person may evoke a very different reaction in somone else. Sometimes this is due to personal preference, and other times due to cultural background. Colour theory is a science in itself. Studying how colours affect different people, either individually or as a group, is something some people build their careers on. And there’s a lot to it. Something as simple as changing the exact hue or saturation of a colour can evoke a completely different feeling. Cultural differences mean that something that’s happy and uplifting in one country can be depressing in another.

Warm Colours

Warm colours include red, orange, and yellow, and variations of those three colours. These are the colours of fire, of fall leaves, and of sunsets and sunrises, and are generally energizing, passionate, and positive.

Red and yellow are both primary colours, with orange falling in the middle, which means warm colours are all truly warm and aren’t created by combining a warm colour with a cool colour. Use warm colours in your designs to reflect passion, happiness, enthusiasm, and energy.

Cool Colours

Cool colours include green, blue, and purple, are often more subdued than warm colours. They are the colours of night, of water, of nature, and are usually calming, relaxing, and somewhat reserved.

Blue is the only primary colour within the cool spectrum, which means the other colours are created by combining blue with a warm colour (yellow for green and red for purple). Greens take on some of the attributes of yellow, and purple takes on some of the attributes of red. Use cool colours in your designs to give a sense of calm or professionalism.

Neutrals

Neutral colours often serve as the backdrop in design. They’re commonly combined with brighter accent colours. But they can also be used on their own in designs, and can create very sophisticated layouts. The meanings and impressions of neutral colours are much more affected by the colours that surround them than are warm and cool colours.

Quick Reference Guide

While the information contained here might seem just a bit overwhelming, colour theory is as much about the feeling a particular shade evokes than anything else. But here’s a quick reference guide for the common meanings of the colours discussed above:

Warm Colours

  • Red: Passion, Love, Anger
  • Orange: Energy, Happiness, Vitality
  • Yellow: Happiness, Hope, Deceit

Cool Colours

  • Green: New Beginnings, Abundance, Nature
  • Blue: Calm, Responsible, Sadness
  • Purple: Creativity, Royalty, Wealth

Neutrals

  • Black: Mystery, Elegance, Evil
  • Gray: Moody, Conservative, Formality
  • White: Purity, Cleanliness, Virtue
  • Brown: Nature, Wholesomeness, Dependability
  • Tan or Beige: Conservative, Piety, Dull
  • Cream or Ivory: Calm, Elegant, Purity

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