Design Dictionary: Color Theory

My very first introduction to design was through a color theory class my sophomore year of college. At the time,  I was so intrigued by the idea that colors had meanings and affect our emotional and sometimes physical responses. This class was one of the reasons why I decided to change majors and go to design school. Since then, my love affair with color has only grown.

Note: all the connotations I am discussing in this post apply to American color psychology only. Different colors mean different things in other cultures. If you are developing your brand to cross countries or continents, do your research and make sure your colors are neutral or have the right connotations in other countries.

First off what IS color? Color is actually a measure of light. This part gets a little scientific, and thanks to the brilliant minds at Ted and Colm Kelleher, you can watch a beautiful video about color and light wavelengths.

source: TedEd

Color Temperature

In color theory, the color spectrum can be divided up into three categories: warm, cool, or neutral. Most of our connotations about color comes from what we see in nature. Warm colors are the reds, the oranges, and the yellows because they make you think of fire and the sun. You see them and feel energized because they stimulate your body into action. They get your heart rate up, they make you salivate or signal the flight or fight response. Cool colors do the exact opposite. Blues, greens, and purples are colors of water and the earth, which provide a sense of calm and healing. Lastly neutrals are just that: neutral. They are the whites, blacks, grays, and browns, coming from colors of the land, animals, and food. They give you a sense of stability and reliability.

The truth is that every color has a warm side and a cool side and it’s all relative to which colors you are comparing. If you took one red and added a little yellow to it, you would have a warmer red than when you started. If you took that same base color red and added a little blue to it, you would then have a cooler red.  Sometimes the same color will look different depending on what colors are surrounding.


I do want to mention briefly that there is also a different color temperature which actually deals with the light aspect. Light temperature affects how we see colors. If you’ve ever looked at a painting in daytime and then at night, you will notice that the colors look different depending on the light source.

There are a few other important things to know about color:

Concept 1: Hue, Tint, and Shade

The hue is the pure form of any color. When you add white to that color you get a tint and when you add black to a hue you get a shade.


Concept 2: Saturation

Saturation refers to how colorful the colors in an image are. In the animation below you can see that the flower starts out 100% saturated and slowly fades to black and white, which is 100% de-saturated.



Now that we’ve covered the basics of color temperature and color properties, let’s talk about the emotional responses we get from color:


Red is a passionate color. It evokes strong emotional energies tied to your fight or flight response. In nature, red is often the sign of blood, which means danger. It can also reference aggression and anger. You hear phrases like “red with anger”, and “red in the face”, or “blushing”(embarrassed). All of these usually have to do with an emotional trigger that sends blood to your face. Red also references heat, both from a fire and from spices and chilis.




Yellow is a warm and cheerful color. It’s associated with the sun, which is where we get our energy for all living things. It is a gender neutral color but certain hues can be hard on the eyes after a long period of time, which is why they say never to paint a baby’s room yellow. yellow


In nature blue represents water, which has a very calming and healing affect.  In modern day we hear phrases like “true blue”, which means trustworthiness and authenticism.   Many corporate brands use the color blue to come off trustworthy and reliable. Blue can also reflect a feeling of sadness and depression. Blue is not a good color to use in food packaging because blue does not naturally occur in many foods and often is a sign of mold.

blue  Green

Green is the color of our earth. In nature, if something is green, it’s healthy and alive. Green is a very energizing and healing color. Many skin care lines often use blue and greens to signify health and vitality.

There is another side of green that references wealth in american culture. When the green is more deep like an emerald or the color of american money, we think of a richness, luxury and greed. Envy is also associated with green.green


The word orange comes directly from the fruit, which is tangy and sweet. Smelling oranges wakes up the senses and energizes you.  From a color theory perspective orange is a mixture of that bright and happy yellow with the warm and blood pumping red. This creates an energetic gender neutral color of warmth, excitement, and action. In nature we also see orange in the fall time, which signifies change.



Pink is a mixture of that passionate red and the purity of white, creating a soft and sweet color, often associated with all things feminine. Pink is actually a very versatile color, ranging from hot magenta all the way to soft bubble gum. Pink is known to have temporary calming effects, which is why they say some holding cells and waiting rooms are colored pink.



Purple is a very regal and majestic color. Back when painters used to have to make their own paints from pigments, purple was one of the most expensive colors, making it only reserved for royalty. It is also associated with spiritualism and psychic occult.



Neutral Colors

Neutral colors are those colors that lack a lot of saturation. They range from black, white, grey, brown, off-white, beige, and cream. They come from colors of stone, sand, and natural colors in the earth. Greys often are equated with aging, dullness, confusion, but also sophistication and wisdom. Beige colors are also very sophisticated and have a “cozy” feeling, often coming from sand and wool. When placed together they have a very cozy and calming effect.



Brown brings a rustic comfort and stability. It is the color of woods and dirt, the things we use to make our homes. It’s a comforting color because it can be seen so many places in nature, from furs, to trees, spices, and foods. Some browns can seem aged or drab, so be careful on which you choose.




Black has so many connotations to it that it really depends on how it is used and what the context is. Black is the absence of light, and when you’re in darkness there is mystery, danger, and anonymity. It is powerful, luxurious, evil, elegant, and sexual. In history we have feared black and called it evil, bad luck, and associated it with death.black


White is pure. It is a blank canvas; a clean slate. It means new beginnings, birth, and marriage and is associated with goodness (v.s evil black), minimalism, and peace. White can also be seen as stark and cold, devoid of color or emotion, so be careful with how you use it. white

All images in these collages are found on pinterest. For more color theory images, please view my Color Theory pin board.