Designer's Guide to the Color Black

Using the ultimate dark color in design and what it symbolizes

Spilled black paint on white background

 Ralf Hiemisch/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Considered the negation or absence of color, black is conservative, goes well with almost any color except the very dark. It also has conflicting connotations. It can be serious and conventional. The color black can also be mysterious and sophisticated.

What colors are black? The color black is represented by the terms coal, charcoal, ebony, ink, jet, lampblack, midnight, obsidian, onyx, raven, sable, and soot.

Nature and Culture

Black is the absence of color. In clothing, black is visually slimming. Black, like other dark colors, can make a room appear to shrink in size, and even a well-lit room looks dark when it has a lot of black. Black makes other colors appear brighter.

In most Western countries black is the color of mourning. Among young people, black is often seen as a color of rebellion. Black is both positive and negative. It is the color for little boys in China. Black, combined with orange, are the colors of Halloween. In the early Westerns, the good guy wore white, while the bad guys wore black. 

Awareness ribbons that use black include those for:

  • Diseases and conditions such as melanoma, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, sleep disorders, primary biliary cirrhosis, and skin cancer
  • Gang prevention
  • POW & MIA
  • Mourning
  • Amish support
  • The choking game (black, red and gold)
  • Loss of a son (black and light blue)
  • Loss of a daughter (black and pink)
  • Bone marrow donor (black and pink)

Using Black in Print and Web Design

In design, use the color black to convey elegance, sophistication or a touch of mystery. Dark charcoal gray and very dark brown can sometimes stand in for black. On screen, black is the RGB formulation 0,0,0 or Hex code #000000.

In printing, black is not always a single ink color. It can be a combination of pure black ink with a percentage of magenta, cyan and yellow included to change the appearance of the black, usually to deliver a richer, more vibrant shade of black. Discover black ink formulas for rich blacks and tips for designing using warm, neutral and cool blacks.

While black can be a focal point, it's also a neutral color. Black text on a white or light background is a tried and true high-contrast choice for books, newsletters, and online articles. 

Be careful using black with other dark colors. It can work, but if the colors are too similar, they blend together and provide poor contrast. Black works well with bright, jewel-toned shades of red, blue, and green. Black is the ultimate dark color and makes light colors such as yellow pop out. Photographs often look brighter against a black background. Black and gray is a conservative combo as is medium or light blue and black.

Black in Language

Familiar phrases can help a designer see how a color of choice might be perceived by others. Black carries both positive and negative connotations.

Positive Black Phrases:

  • Black tie - formal as in formal party attire
  • Black belt - expert especially in martial arts
  • Blackwash - bring things out in the open, in the black - having money, doing well in business
  • Men in black - government agents
  • Black box - equipment or apparatus
  • Pitch black - dark as night, very black

Negative Black Phrases

  • Blackout - Loss of consciousness or the act of erasing something
  • Blackout - loss of electricity or turning out the lights
  • Black eye - damage to one's reputation, slander
  • Black-hearted - evil
  • Blackguard - a scoundrel
  • Black sheep - an outcast from a family or from society
  • Black market - illegal trade (goods or money)
  • Blackmail - obtaining something by threat
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