Color Symbolism

Based on Jill Morton’s “Guide to color Symbolism

I recently read Jill Morton’s e-book “Guide to Color Symbolism”, which describes the symbolic meaning of various colors. I read this book in an effort to get some guidance about what colors would be most appropriate for given web sites, and the books was, in fact, very helpful. I’ll summarize the things I learned from the book with respect to color symbolism and the symbolism associated with nine basic colors. It’s important to note that I will provide a summary of what I learned, while the book includes many more details on all of the things I discuss about symbolism. Therefore, if you are interested in learning more about color symbolism, I would encourage you to purchase the book. I found it very helpful.

Research Context

One of my first questions, as I read the Morton book was: what research are these guidelines/suggestions based on? This author has a lot of training and experience in color design and consulting, so if this is strictly based on her experience, the information can still be useful. If it’s based on research, then I would like to know the nature of the research. Both expert commentary and empirical research have their strengths and weaknesses. The main point here is that it’s very important to consider the context as you read and apply information for designing web sites.

The information appears to be based on the author’s experience, a theory of color symbolism, and information gleaned from a large web survey of 30,000 + users since 1997. You can take the survey and then you get to see some of the results. I took the survey and found out some of the basic results. For example, I found out that blue was most frequently rated as the “favorite color”. However, I don’t know anything about the demographics of the sample, or other frequency information, like what was the second favorite color, or what percentage picked blue; or the interaction of demographics and color (e.g., what did women pick as compared to men). You can get this information for a fee and I’m too cheap to do that; plus, I’m a college professor and we have a different model for peer-review and everything; plus, just seeing the top picks for different characteristics was interesting anyway. In any case, that’s the context for the research that was one of the sources informing the book the following summary is based on, so, on to the colors.


Morton identifies two basic categories for considering colors. The first is “reference to nature”, which includes “elements that one would find at any time on earth” These are largely culturally and time independent. The second is psychological symbolism, which refers to positive and negative associations of colors. This is primarily what I will refer to in reviewing the symbolism that she attributes to nine basic colors below. She also points out there are other less fundamental categories, such as “contemporary culture”, “religious”, “fashion”, etc.


I will review nine of the ten colors she discusses. (I didn’t review orange, since it seemed to overlap a lot with other colors. The most interesting thing about it was that it was picked in the survey as the least favorite color). I want to note, again, that the discussion below is just a summary. Morton goes into a lot more detail on each color in her book, so, if you’d like to know more (or critique my interpretation) get the book.


After reading her description of red, I would describe it as the “in your face” color. Red is associated with good stuff like energy, warmth, love and excitement, while the bad characteristics are things like dominance, war and violence. Interestingly, red is perceived to advance, creating the impression that red objects are closer than they actually are. In the survey, red was the most selected color as representing “good tasting”, “sexiness”, and “powerful”.


My label for purple, based on Morton’s description, is the “eccentric mystic” color. Purple is associated with spirituality, mystery, magic, and creativity, which are pretty cool characteristics to most of us. However, it’s also associated with conceit and pomposity. It is the hardest color for the eye to discriminate. In the survey it was the color that was most often selected as representing “dignity”.


I call blue the “dependable quiet color” based on Morton’s description. Blue’s associated with trust and contentment, which are pretty positive things, and conservatism, which is good or bad depending on your perspective. It’s also associated with masculinity, which could be good or bad depending on what you’re trying to represent in your design. It’s also associated with depression, which most everyone would view as negative. In contrast to red, blue objects are perceived to recede; to be farther away than they actually are. In the survey, Blue had the distinction of winning the “favorite color” contest, as I mentioned above, and it was also most often selected for the characteristic “dependable”.


Green is the “young fresh color” to me after reading the description. Green is associated with nature, fruitfulness, youth, and healing – all good stuff. Unfortunately, it’s also associated with envy and immaturity. In terms of optics, it is the most restful color to the eye. Despite that, on the survey it was the number one pick for representing “nausea”. On a more positive note, it was also the number one pick for “good luck”.


Yellow is the “happy color”, which I sort of thought even before reading Morton’s description. It’s associated with cheer, luminosity, and enlightenment. On the negative side, it’s also associated with egoism and dishonesty (which at least may make the egotistic perpetrator of the dishonesty happy). Yellow is the most visible and luminous color of the spectrum. On the survey yellow was the color most frequently selected as representing “happy”.


My label for brown is the “down to earth” color, since it’s associated with realism, reliability, and homeyness. On the bad side it’s associated with boredom, which you might also say, in general, about something that is down to earth. In the survey it was the most selected for “inexpensive” so, in that sense, it is also the “cheap color”.


The “powerful dark color”, is the impression I got after reading the book’s symbolic description, since it is associated with power and sophistication on one hand, and death and emptiness on the other. In the survey black was the first pick for “mourning”, “high quality”, and “bad luck”.


White is the “pure and holy color” to me, based on the description. It’s associated with purity, innocence, spirituality and newness. The down side is that it’s also associated with blandness and sterility. As for optics, white can produce glare and optical fatigue in large quantities. In the survey it was most selected for “pure” and “deity”.


The “high tech” color is how I will label gray, but this is somewhat misleading. This particularly applies if you think of gray as also representing the color silver, which I see as a shiny version. Morton describes gray as representing intelligence and futurism, which are pretty positive. Also, grey represents liberalism, which, as with blue and conservatism, could be good or bad. The negative side of gray is that it’s also associated with indifference, decay and dreariness. As for optics, it’s the simplest color for the eye to see. On the survey, silver was selected most often as the color for representing “high technology”.


So, how does all this relate to web design and web colors? In fact, I find that it relates very much. After reading this book I have a much better staring point for selecting the colors that I think will best represent a given site. Once you have identified what type of message that you would like your site to represent, the symbolic descriptions in the book can serve as a good starting point for what colors to use and not use. For example, for a site where trust and honesty are important, blue would be a good place to start. Where the goal is to spread joy and happiness, yellow would seem ideal. For a site aimed at encouraging youth and a fresh start, green would be a beginning. You get the idea. In addition, it certainly provides the web designer with a good justification for clients, as to why she did or did not select a certain color.