A Designer's Guide to the Color White: Its Shades and Meanings

Using the Ultimate Light Color in Your Designs

Empty white frame on a white background
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White is purity, cleanliness, and innocence. Like black, white goes well with almost any color. - Jacci Howard Bear's Desktop Publishing Colors and Color Meanings 

Snow, pearl, antique white, ivory, chalk, milk white, lily, smoke, seashell, old lace, cream, linen, ghost white, beige, cornsilk, alabaster, paper, and whitewash are synonymous with or represent shades of the color white. 

Nature and Culture of White

To the human eye, white is a brilliant color that can cause headaches for some. Too much bright white can be blinding.

In most Western countries white is the color for brides. In the East, it's the color for mourning and funerals. White is often associated with hospitals, doctors, nurses, and dentists. Some cultures view white as the color of royalty or of deities. Angels are typically depicted as wearing white. In early Westerns, the good guy wore white, while the bad guy wore black.

Awareness ribbons that use white include:

  • Diseases and conditions such as bone cancer, osteoporosis, scoliosis, diabetes, hypoglycemia, postpartum depression, lung cancer and lung disease, multiple sclerosis, mesothelioma and emphysema
  • Victims of terrorism
  • Sexual assault of students
  • Peace
  • Innocence
  • Right to life
  • Adoption

Using White in Print and Web Design

In most cases, white is seen as a neutral background color and other colors, even when used in a smaller proportion, are the colors that convey the most meaning in a design. Use white to signify cleanliness, purity or softness. Some neutral beige, ivory, and creams carry the same attributes as white but are more subdued and less brilliant than white. Use lots of white for a summery look. Use small amounts of white to soften a wintery palette or suggest snow. Use white for simple, formal invitations and thank you cards.

When your design is destined for print, white or cream is usually the color of the paper all other colors are printed upon. White ink isn't easy to print, although there are some options that give the effect of white ink

Used with light or pastel tones, white is soft and springlike and helps to make the pastel palette more lively. White can make dark or light reds, blues and greens look brighter, more prominent. Red, white, and blue make a patriotic palette.

White in Language

Familiar phrases can help a designer see how their color of choice might be perceived by others, both the positive and negative aspects.

Positive white:

  • White as the driven snow - pure, clean, innocent
  • White elephant - rare, valuable but perhaps unwanted
  • White knight - someone who comes to another person's rescue, someone perceived as being good, noble
  • Whitelist - list of good or acceptable items
  • White sale - sale of sheets, towels other linens
  • Pearly white - teeth, especially very white teeth

Negative white:

  • Whitewash - cover up, conceal
  • Whiteout - zero visibility
  • White flag - surrender
  • White lightning - moonshine, illegal whiskey
  • White knuckle - something that is fast, exciting or frightening