What does color mean?

July 12, 2007
Have you ever been passed on the highway by one of the ugly pink cars a certain cosmetics company gives its sales force?

I think the drivers go so fast because they are ashamed to be seen in a pink car. Color makes a big impression and, believe it or not, can affect a company's bottom line.

So, how do you pick a good color for a design? For some products, it's a no-brainer because there are already established industry standards. Yellow, for example, is for construction equipment, and red or florescent green is for fire trucks. Here are a few tips on those and other colors:

Red suggests aggressive. The color raises subconscious flags because it's the color of blood. Red also means danger — and interestingly, excitement. That's why there are so many red sports cars.

Yellow is another spor ty color for much the same reason. But it also says "Caution" or "Hazardous."

White means different things in different cultures. It can suggest clean or sterile, denoting purity or holiness. I'm told that in Asia, white is the traditional color of death.

Black (Henry Ford's favorite) makes things seem rugged, even sporty. Black can also denote high class and formal. Like white, black suggests either holy or evil.

Silver denotes high tech, but can be construed as artificial.

Pink usually means "girlie" (the so-called "power ties" notwithstanding).

Blue, of course, is traditionally for boys.

Green is associated with natural, that is, safe.

Light green (and sometimes white) suggests medical.

Pastels mean gentle and pure.

Muted colors denote classy. Thus, they are plentiful in bank ads and men's clubs.

Bright colors (especially primaries) are fun and youthful.

Fluorescents are right out of the psychedelic 1960s, man. Interestingly, animals that cannot see color also can't tell the difference between leafy green and fluorescent orange. That's why hunters have fluorescent camouflage. (I must admit to more than a little confusion at the pink camouflage people wear nowadays. What kind of surroundings are they trying to fit into?)

As for color combinations, black and white have the highest contrast. But black and yellow are the most noticeable to humans. So hazard signs and police crime-scene tapes are always black and yellow.

A good working knowledge of color can help avoid making aesthetic design mistakes. Selecting the wrong color can tell potential customers that your company is stodgy and its products dated. After all, when was the last time you actually wanted to buy an avocado-green refrigerator?

Mike Hudspeth, ISDA, is an industrial designer with more than two decades of experience. Got a question about industrial design? You can reach Mike at [email protected]

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