A Designer's Guide to Understanding Colors

The meanings of cool, warm and neutral colors and how they affect design

Understanding the meaning of colors as well as the cultural use of colors and how they interact is important in print and electronic design, among other fields. As we explore, colors are nonverbal communication that creates physical and emotional reactions. 

Proficiency in color theory conveys the right tone and message and evokes the desired response to a publication. The same is true when you work with clothing, household products, and room decor.

The Meaning of Cool Colors and Their Positive Attributes

Cool colors tend to have a calming effect. At one end of the spectrum, they are cold, impersonal, antiseptic colors. At the other end, cool colors are comforting and nurturing. Blue, green, and the neutrals white, gray, and silver are examples.

  • Blue is strong, important, peaceful, and intelligent. Some similar colors include azure, beryl, cerulean, cobalt, corporate blue, indigo, navy, and sapphire.
  • Green signals growth, health, environment, and harmony.

The Meaning of Warm Colors and Their Positive Attributes

Warm colors convey emotions from simple optimism to strong violence. The warmth of red, yellow, pink, or orange can create excitement or even anger. The neutrals of black and brown also carry warm attributes.

  • Red is all about love, passion, heat, joy, and power. Also consider blood red, crimson, scarlet, and vermilion.
  • Pink is sweet, nice, romantic, playful, and delicate, similar to fuchsia.
  • Yellow is happy, joyful, cheerful, and for remembrance.
  • Gold represents riches, extravagance, brightness, and tradition.
  • Orange is energy, warmth, change, and health.

The Meaning of Mixed (Warm/Cool) Colors and Their Positive Attributes

Colors with attributes from both the warm and cool colors can calm and excite. These are colors derived from a mix of a cool and a warm color, such as blue and red or blue and yellow.

Typically considered cool, green is really more of a mixed warm and cool color. Specific shades of individual colors may lean more to the warm or cool side. A grassy green is warmer than a deep, watery blue-green.

  • Purple is royal, precious, romantic, and sacred. Fuchsia, lilac, plum, and violet are some similar colors.
  • Lavender is full of grace, elegance, delicate, and feminine color.
  • Green signifies growth, health, environment, and harmony, like chartreuse.
  • Turquoise represents the feminine, sophisticated, retro look.
  • Beige is conservative and relaxing.

The Meaning of Neutral Colors and Their Positive Attributes

Neutral colors help to put the focus on other colors or serve to tone down colors that might otherwise be overpowering on their own.

To some extent, blacks, browns, tans, golds, and beige are considered warm. Cooler colors, on the other hand, are white, ivory, silver, and gray. However, these warm and cool attributes are flexible and more subtle than those of reds or blues.

  • Black reveals itself as conservative, mysterious, and sophisticated.
  • Gray goes formal, conservative, and sophisticated as well.
  • Silver says sleek, glamorous, and rich.
  • White is for purity, innocence, and softness.
  • Ivory whispers quiet, pleasant, understated elegance.
  • Brown is earthiness, wholesomeness, simplicity, and friendliness.
  • Beige is traditional, sober, and relaxing.
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