Understanding color psychology though culture, symbolism, and emotion

muditha batagoda
UX Planet
Published in
10 min readNov 27, 2018


A simple dive to culture to understand how colors came to create emotions.


The idea of colors and how they would impact a humans life was taken in to debate many years among the designers. This idea fascinated me for some time, but most of the articles I have written got mixed responses. Through the feedback and after a couple of public speeches I noticed that people’s choice of color is more complex than I initially thought.

The color is not objective but a subjective creation. When light hits an object — the object absorbs some of the light and reflect the rest out. The absorbance and reflection of the colors happen due to the properties of the object. The Wavelengths which are reflected would hit the retina of the human eye that responds to light. That is how we see light.
The color has been one of the most commonly used among many cultures for communicating information and creating emotions. The common idea is that a color can generate a specific emotion at any given time. This idea is something that we have to dig in deeply to understand. If you browse the internet you may see hundreds of articles written about colors and how they bring in specific emotion when interacting with the human eye. I have noticed many organizations have taken these ideas and added to their branding to make the people attached to their products but rarely they work according to their plans.

What is color psychology?

Color psychology is the study of hues as a determinant of human behavior. Color influences perceptions that are not obvious, such as the taste of food. -wikipedia

The effect of color can be perspective to one another. We can not say different people would gain the same emotions by just looking into the same color. The idea of color psychology has been in the discussion for many years. A popular theory on color psychology is that a person’s mood can be influenced by the color, light and the surrounding. In the early stage of improving psychology, a famous theory was brought out about regarding colors and emotions which was called “rose of temperaments” which was ideated by Goethe and Schiller, matching twelve colours to human occupations or their character traits (tyrants, heroes, adventurers, hedonists, lovers, poets, public speakers, historians, teachers, philosophers, pedants, rulers), grouped in the four temperaments.

rose of temperaments

As per the temperaments originally designed by Galen, the colors were applied to them as follows

choleric (red/orange/yellow): tyrants, heroes, adventurers;
sanguine (yellow/green/cyan) hedonists, lovers, poets;
phlegmatic (cyan/blue/violet): public speakers, historians.
melancholic (violet/magenta/red): philosophers, pedants, rulers.

Well, the idea of temperament was taken down by the times of renaissance with the advancement of medicine and biology his ideas were also dropped many times but he rose of temperaments is not actually a science but a subjective view of how personalities can be represented by the colors. This is considered as the starting point of the modern day color psychology.

How color can affect our brain?

There is no doubt the colors can stimulate our brain chemistry and create emotions according to them. The effects can be both physical and emotional as well. The human’s Occipital lobe is mostly is associated with the color visualization. The color green and blue which are the most common colors in nature can provide a better healing to stressed-out mind. The color blue is widely used in mental therapy to reduce stress and reduce the rate of suicide and Japan has gone as far as to paint the train station walls with the color blue and it has helped to reduce suicide in public spaces by 75%. We always look into color in a prospective manner because of our preferences. Then a question came to my mind, “What are the ways colors affect us?”. We will start from the top

How culture has an impact on color?

The culture is the very foundation our life and lifestyle is buildup on. The behavior of humans have a direct impact and reflect the cultural aspects of humans. Asian culture, middle east culture, European culture, American culture has rich values that make the people who are living in those counties unique to one another. These cultures preserve colors to show the values of each culture individually. In some cultures, religion plays a huge role as an influencing factor for the culture.

The graph is taken from Information beautiful website shows that there are some differences and similarities on cultures when come to showing color and its meaning. A simple dive into the values of a few major religions can explain how they use the color to express the core value of the religion.

The colors in buddhism

The color and Buddhism has a strong bond and most of the time it is represented in the months of Vesak and in countries such as in Sri Lanka in Poson full moon poya days where they celebrate the religion by going to temples chanting prayers and creating lanterns. Most of the houses and templates are decorated nearly for a week for the Vesak season. In this time temples and houses of Buddhists, the Buddhist flag is shown to honor the occasion. Famously the flag has the following colors and meanings given to it.

Resource — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_flag

The color meanings are as following

  • Blue (Nīla): The Spirit of Universal Compassion
  • Yellow (Pīta): The Middle Way
  • Red (Lohita): The Blessings of Practice — achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune and dignity
  • White (Odāta): The Purity of Dhamma — leading to liberation, timeless
  • Orange (Manjesta): The Wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings
  • The sixth vertical band, on the fly, is made up of a combination of rectangular bands of the five other colours, and represents a compound of the other five colours in the aura’s spectrum. This compound colour is referred to as the Truth of the Buddha’s teaching Pabbhassara (‘essence of light’).

Most of the time Buddhist wear white color dresses when going to temples to show simplicity and purity. The color blue represents infinity and in meditation, the color blue is considered to calm the mind and help to achieve wisdom.

The idea of associate colors in religion has many debates and some of these ideas are generated from beliefs and thoughts of the followers and some have an actual psychological value. I myself diving deep more into the religion and culture to gain more knowledge so I will not be misinterpreting any information because talking about religion is a very sensitive topic. You will be able to get more information in the next few articles I am writing.

How color can have an impact on symbolism?

The union of the Word and the Mind produces that mystery which is called Life. Learn deeply of the Mind and its mystery, for therein lies the secret of immortality.~Hermes Trismegistus

Symbols are a powerful representation of organizations, personality or any other cult. Symbols allow ownership, uniqueness, represent a nation and its people and helps to identify different groups of people. The symbolism goes from national flags to marketing where people sell their own brands and create their own identities.

In this section, we will talk about how symbols can increase their personality. I will be talking the little bit on marketing and colors to make you understand how the emotions are created through it.
We have seen many big organizations comes up with different logos and brandings time to time, each with a different color to help and support them in staying in the market. I know that you may have read many articles regarding the branding but let’s look into something more closer to humans.

Comic Books and color

I know most of you are familiar with comic books and a series of American superheroes who are set to save the world. These male and female characters have some colors in common.

primary colors
super heros in primary colors

Most of the superheroes that we see have these three primary colors. The superheroes are generally good guys and fight against the bad guys that want to take the world in most cases the earth into the darkness.

Resource — http://visualbroadcast.com/ultimate-guide-superhero-colour-theory

There are few theories when coming to color psychology of superhero characters. We will look into them one by one.

The Red color is a warm color and most of the time the color red is considered to increase the blood pressure when interacted. The color red set to be increasing the fighting instincts and more integrated with law and order.
The Blue color is a cool color and in this case, the color blue tells the character’s calmness, focus, and clarity.

The Yellow color is one of the most commonly used colors on the superheroes. The yellow colors are long wavelength color. In psychology, the color yellow is considered as a color of positive thinking and confidence which is to be represented by the superhero.

Another popular idea of using primary colors in the superheroes is that the time of the printing. At the time many printing presses didn’t had much of the choice in color except for the primary and secondary colors and had used them on the superheroes and used back or dark gray colors on villains. The colors since used until the technology age to this day.

Superhero movies and cartoon has bought a multi-billion industry to the world market. The number of superheroes has grown with the time and the colors have increased with time.

Emotional Experience and color

The most common idea about colors making the effect on humans is the emotional experience they have had with the color. The humans preserve colors in different ways. The common example is the color blue which is widely used in many designs. The color blue is mostly associated with the environment such as sea, sky and the freedom. Most of the people are reminded of these things when they are discussing with color. Some associate the color blue with sadness, loneliness and removing all attachments with people. In order for us to choose the right colors for our audience we need to understand them better, not just their geographical location or device they’re using, but them — where they come from, what they believe in, what they care about and what matters to them most.


After all this information I know that you are wondering how you can gain an advantage in creating applications using color. A product should always reflect what is it about and how it’s going to represent. First of all, you need to identify what your customer, users and focus groups emotions are. As designers, we always create assumptions on the emotions that a person would make on a product. To understand your user and to apply the proper color you should follow the following points.

  1. Collect data on the behavior of your target audience — You should be able to understand which area of the world the users come from so it is easy to determine the culture of the targeted groups.
  2. The different age groups who will be interacting with your applications and who are interacting with your application at the moment.
  3. What are they searching for and how are their keywords vary from each user groups that you are interacting.
  4. What are the devices and what are the languages that the target groups are more commonly used when interacting with your application or interacting with your competitor applications.

I am hoping to talk about the most common misconceptions and how the age and gender can have an effect on color selection and how we can use psychology to improve your application and the impact of the application for the target groups.

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