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Article - 'Colour Symbolism' by Angroth

An item about Game Design posted on Sep 3, 2004

Blurb

Colour symbolism and how it can help out YOUR game.

Body

Introduction

Colour is often one of the more subtle and tricky thing, often effecting you on a subconscious level. However minor it may seem, it has a great power when combined with the music, story and action of your game. People have been proven to act differently to different colours. Sometimes your reaction can be emotional too, sometimes people will remember a colour or smell of certain events in their life to help them remember the event itself.

In good old American and British culture black is associated with death, evilness or something bad happening. And on the other end white is sought to be a sign of purity and life. A stereotypical view of Heaven and Hell would signify this very well, Heaven being up in the clouds being light and white, and Hell being a dark, dim craggy cavern full of molten lava under the Earth. But then there are already two other colours I’ve thrown into the mix. Blue (the sky), emphasising the calmness and beauty of the white and the red (flames) enhancing the darkness and danger of the black. In the West blue is seen as a loyal, stable colour (Obi Wan Kenobi’s lightsaber was blue in Star Wars Episode: I). And notably red is often connected with blood and danger (Darth Maul’s lightsaber was red).

Black and darker colours are also connecting with death and danger because when it’s dark at night, our main sense of sight is impaired, making us more susceptible to danger. While white and lighter colours brighten things up, becoming our saviour and allowing us to see everything and feel at ease.

Strangely in the East, white is the colour of death and sadness. As the traditional oriental colour of mourning is white. And although black is seen as doom and gloom, the West are also now associating it with formality and sophistication (men in suits, think The Matrix). Butlers also wear a black suit, a sign of formality and at weddings or expensive meals / parties black suits are also worn for sophistication purposes (and intrinsically for formality). Once again though, strangely enough, Pink and general pastel colours are often what make the Koreans see formality and sophistication.

Other formal / royal colours include purple and gold. As these colours are associated with wealth and opulence, especially in the West.

Green is ever growing a strong connection with the colour to represent environmental and ecology related things. But it’s also seen as a sign of something being alright to do, or something being good. This most likely reared around from traffic lights and the green light allowing you to pass.

Finally some other worth notations of colouring are Primary Colours. They are very bright (no matter which one) and convey fun. This is why most children’s toys (or cartoons) are so bright. Much like Pokémon, Pikachu was simply a powerful primary yellow.


More General Colour Information

As you can see from above, colour is much more than a combination of shades. It’s an expression of something, non-verbal communication in its most basic form. As well as emotional or subconscious reactions to colours, they can too provide a physical reaction. Red was once shown to raise the blood pressure. Colours are also bounded to seasons and occasions. Red, white and green are Christmas colours, whereas black and orange are associated with Halloween.

But as well as understanding the meanings, we must also try to know how to mix and match colours to get exactly the right relationship between them that we want, whether they are clashing or complementing.

Complementary colours are separated by another colour on the colour wheel. Side by side, complementary colours don’t always work; they can become horrible to look at. But if they are separated from each other with other colours they often work very well together.

Adjacent / harmonizing colours are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. Due to their incredibly similar contrast they blend together very well but if too many harmonizing colours are used together the overall product is a washed out look or something with very small contrast. I recommend that no more that two adjacent colours are used on one object.

Clashing / contrasting colours are the direct opposite of one another on the colour wheel. But despite being opposing / clashing colours they aren’t always a bad combination; they can provide high visibility and great contrast. But remember, clashing colours (as the name suggests) is usually a risk, you should only really use it if you know what you’re doing.

High contrast is mainly only used for distinguishing text from a background. But still, it can be tiring on the eye in some cases. If you open the paint program and flood fill the background with the light bogey green colour and then enter “Hello there reader” with the standard blood red colour (at about size 8, with an easy to read text type). Finally, zoom into the text and you will find that it’s hard to read and looks quite ugly. If you replace the light green with the dark marshland green just above (floodfill), you should notice how much easier and calmer it is on the eye. This is because clashing colours are worst when they are both the same brightness. The main focus must almost always be significantly brighter, or sometimes the other way around.


Detailed Information: Black

Black can be considered the negation of colour. It goes well with almost any other colour apart from other very dark colours. It also has two opposing connotations, as it is seen as serious, formal and conventional but also has a sexy, sophisticated and mysterious outlook.

As white is the presence of colour, black is inevitably the absence of colour. Clothing wise, black often helps for slimming purposes. It also has shrinking properties when applied to rooms, if the walls are black a well-lit room will seem smaller. And when combined with a lighter colour, black can enhance the brightness of the lighter colour; obviously the absence of colour makes the presence of colour around it stand out more than it normally would.

As mentioned earlier, in Western culture black is the colour of mourning and death. It is also a colour of rebellion and trouble (backstabbing and deceit), especially among younger people. As we’ve already seen, black is a very ambiguous colour and can be positive or negative depending on the circumstances. For instance, black (and orange) is the colour of Halloween (scary) but also the colour for little Chinese boys (normal happy children). An example of black’s mystical side can be seen in many Westerns. Hero’s predominantly wore white while the villains would don black clothing, however as time passed the hero’s started wearing more and more black, adding that mysterious, dangerous edge to themselves.

You can get the same, elegance, mystery and sophistication without having to use actual black. Dark greys and browns can sometimes replace it. But be careful using dark colours with black, it can work but if the shades are too dark they can blend into the black and become a horrible blur. But it’s ability to complement brighter colours makes it a perfect match with green, red, blue and even yellow!

Bad Associations
- Evil, darkness, night.
- Illegal activities (blackmarket), punishment.
- Outcasts, untrustworthy scoundrels.
- Slander, blackmail.
- Sexy, temptation.

Good Associations
- Formal, sophistication.
- Expert (predominantly martial arts).
- Power, mysteriousness, agents.

Word Associations
Charcoal, coal, ebony, ink, jet, midnight, obsidian, onyx, raven, sable, soot.


Detailed Information: White

White is the presence of light. It stands for purity, innocence and cleanliness. Much like black, it goes well with almost any other colour. However white can also be associated with headaches and blindness for some, because if you stare at this bright colour when it is intense it can cause those problems.

White is seen as a good colour because it is linked to brides and weddings (because of their innocence and purity, being handed over to the man by their father). It also links to hospitals, doctors, nurses and dentists whom are all people who help us and our health (and wear lots of white themselves). Angels are usually depicted wearing white and we associate the Heavens with this goodness. Other cultures also viewed gods, deities and royalty with white for similar reasons.

White is bad because in the East, it is the colour for funerals, death and mourning. If ever seen as a tempting and sexy colour, it will only be due to its presence of innocence, youth and purity. To taint and take advantage of someone’s innocence can appeal to some people. Hence, long white stockings on school girls and their white shirts, make them even more innocent and youthful.

White is often a neutral background colour in which other colours are thrown onto and around. Other colours combined with white will be the colours that convey most meaning. Use pure white to convey softness, purity and cleanliness. Less effective that pure white are creamy, ivory, beige colours; they carry the same properties as white but are more subtle and less obvious as plain white. Small amounts of white can soften something and suggest a snowy, winter theme.

When applied with darker colours or light primary colours, white will enhance their prominence. If applied with pastel tones it will provide a softer, more lively look. Reds, whites and blues together make a patriotic colour scheme.

Bad Associations
- Surrender, defeat.
- Fast, frightening, ghostly.
- Pale, illness, sickness.
- Boring, plain, normal, tempting (to do something to it, flick paint at it etc).

Good Associations
- Purity, cleanliness, innocence.
- Rarity, magical, uniqueness.
- Royal, noble, saviour, deity, gods.

Word Associations
Albino, beige, chalk, corn-silk, cream, diamond, ghost, ivory, lily, linen, milk, old lace, paper, pearl, seashell, smoke, snow, whitewash.


Detailed Information: Green

Green is associated with nature and the environment. It signifies health, growth, renewal and ecology. However it’s bad undertones are jealousy or envy and inexperience (marines refer to an inexperienced newcomer as Green).

Green is a peaceful and calming colour, with some similar properties to blue; time is said to move more quickly in a green room. Darker shades of green are very easy on the eyes and you can stare at this colour with ease.

Green’s cooling and warming effect is very good, it denotes stability, balance and harmony (Qui Gon Jin lightsaber is green in Star Wars: Episode I). For some people, darker greens can signify authority and military overtones, but this isn’t often.

Combining blue with green forms a nature theme, with water and life. It can also denote growth, forests and new beginnings with blue (and sometimes brown). Green with beige, tan and brown colours often suggests recycled / organic overtones. Purple with green produces a high contrast showing a lively aspect. Fresh fruity colours are made with green, orange and yellow. And yellow, black (or white) and green make a sporty combination.

Bad Associations
- Money (dollar bills).
- Jealousy, envy.
- Newcomer, inexperienced, untrained, novice.
- Pale, sickness, rotting or decaying.

Good Associations
- Money (dollar bills).
- New, fresh.
- Clean, ecological.
- Growth, health, renewal.
- Permission, accessibility (traffic lights).

Word Associations
Apple, aquamarine, beryl, emerald, forest, grass, jade, leaf, lime, moss, mint, olive, pea, pine, sage, sap, spring, viridian.


Detailed Information: Red

Red is a powerful colour that has conflicting symbolism. On one hand it means love, passion and intensity but on the other edge is the war, blood and danger aspects. Red is also the colour of cupid (love) and the Devil (war). Red has been shown to have a genuine physical effect on respiration rate, increasing blood pressure. Red signifying anger and danger probably equally stems from the natural redness in the cheeks and physical action to anger and physical exertion as it does to its associations. Blushing is also a physical reaction, one to strong emotions of love, caring and devotion.

Due to red’s strength as a colour, it is related to power. Celebrities for example, walk the red carpet. In China red shows prosperity, happiness and good fortune. In other cultures it shows purity, joy and celebration, similarly in Western culture Christmas is a time of joy and it’s significant colour theme is red, white and some green. Flashing red lights warn us of danger or emergency. Stop signs are also red, to catch a driver’s attention and alert them. Red stands out in everyday life due to the lack of redness in nature, not as many things are red (in the West) as there are browns, blues and green colours.

In the East brides wear red but on the flip of the coin, South Africans do their mourning in red. Also, many national flags utilise red; it enhances the strength and royalty overtones.

Use red if you feel something should be in the foreground, and not hidden away in the background, if you need it to stand out or have some significance. Small doses of red are often more effective than large amounts, as it subtle shows a sign of confidence and importance, too much red will overdo this. In The Matrix, the woman in the red dress shows the significance, precious and unique aspects of the colour red.

Bad Associations
- Angry, seething.
- Danger, battle, warning.
- Blood, carnage, death.
- Error, mistake, the loss of something.

Good Associations
- Importance, significance.
- Celebration, parties.
- Precious, rarity (rubies).
- Love, beauty, sexiness.

Word Associations
Blood, blush, burgundy, brick, carmine, cinnabar, crimson, fire / flame, maroon, rouge, rose, ruby, rust, scarlet, tomato, vermillion.


Detailed Information: Blue

Blue is a calm and cool colour. It’s strong much like red but very friendly. Blue can look good on anything! This natural colour, from the sky is a universal colour. It’s calming affect will help time pass more hastily and can even aid in sleeping. But as with most colours, too much blue will give a sad, cold overtone.

Blue is also a significant colour in religious beliefs. Many cultures feel it brings peace or can ward evil spirits away. It boasts confidence and importance (much like red) but has no sinister or sombre strings attached to it. We can see this confidence and importance in the police, who wear blue uniform (not everywhere of course). They are helping us and aid in the calming of our spirits. Less calming yet high importance can be seen in the corporate world, where men don blue power suits. Often associated with the corporate world, blue also shows unity, stability, intelligence and sometimes conservatism (especially darker blues). Notably, in Star Wars: Episode I, Obi Wan Kenobi has a blue lightsaber; expressing the unity, intelligence and importance overtones.

Being a non-violent colour, blue is also associated with being blue or down, sadness, depression and the lack of violent emotions. This side of the colour red shows violence and war, instead of love and passion, but being less physically extreme, blue doesn’t have the over the top emotions attached to it. Like with all colours, blue in the West is traditional for love in bridal times, whereas Iran sees blue as a mourning colour, and times of sadness.

Bad Associations
- Sadness, depression.
- Laws, enforcement, standards, expectations.
- Unexpected (bad or good).

Good Associations
- Loyal, faithfulness.
- Top prize, awards.
- Scholarly, intelligence.
- Nobility, royalty.

Word Associations
Azure, baby blue, beryl, blue tit (birds), cerulean, cobalt, cornflower blue, cyan, indigo, midnight, navy, Prussian blue, royal, sapphire, sky, slate, steel blue.


Detailed Information: Yellow

Yellow is a warming colour that has conflicting symbolism, just like red. It shows hope, joy, happiness and sunshine but also denotes deceit, cowardice and lies. Due to it’s brightness and high visibility, once again like red it is used in some emergency and hazard signs. It’s use with hazard signs creates a small association with danger, but not half as significant as red.

Although it is a primary colour, due to its nature and extreme brightness it often looks best when used as a backup to another colour (or an equal). Yellow can add a perkiness overtone or something quite cheerful and active.

Yellow is often great at helping getting weird and psychedelic colouring. If combined with a (brighter) blue it is eye straining and will stand out as something strange yet important. It can be used with other warm colours such as red and orange to created fiery or fruity colours, or sometimes even a sandy colour. So on the one hand it is excellent for making dreadful overbearing colour schemes and yet it seemingly binds in with other colours to make nicer combinations.

Bad Associations
- Cowardice, fear.
- Lies, irresponsibility.

Good Associations
- Hope, support, friendship.
- Relaxation, chilling.
- Joy, quirkiness, fun.

Word Associations
Cream, dusk, dusty, gold, lemon, melon, sand, saffron, topaz.


Detailed Information: Purple

Purple is a spiritual and royal colour. Red and blue (hot and cold, fire and water) have a large contrast so when they merge together to form this colour, it is often perceived as mysterious and intriguing. Purple is very precious in nature, for example violets and lilacs are two beautiful and special kinds of flowers. Traditionally, in many cultures purple is associated with royalty. But due to its derision from such a strong warm colour and strong cool colour, it has crossover properties of both colours. It can boost creativity and imagination with its mysteriousness but an overdose of it (much like blue) will result in sadness and generally feeling down.

To enhance the two different properties of purple you can use a more red based purple for a warmer, more intense feeling and a more blue based purple for a cooler, calmer feeling. Deep or bright purples have a more delicate, tender and romantic overtone. Due to this purple (and pink) have a more feminine appeal.

Bad Associations
- Confusion, lost.
- Lies, deceit, deception, mystery.
- Exaggeration, ridiculous.
- Profound, raunchy.

Good Associations
- Precious, unique, one of a kind.
- Bizarre, unusual, weird.
- Tender, romantic, delicate.
- Over the top, exaggeration.
- Mysteriousness.

Word Associations
Amethyst, eggplant, lavender, lilac, magenta, mauve, mulberry, orchid, plum, pomegranate, puce, raspberry, royal, thistle, violet, wine.


Conclusion

I hope you find all this information on colour symbolism helpful. I’m quite fascinated by this stuff, and think that as an aid to your game, use colour schemes of people, places and menus to back the overtone of your game. It can really help change the mood and effect what people might remember or find more significant in your game, compared to what they would if you didn’t use anything from this.

I used the following site to help write this article:
Some Information

Obviously I haven’t included all colours in the detailed descriptions, merely 7. But if people like this enough I might go over some of the other colours.