Yellow is generally associated with happiness, but consider this disturbing scientifically proven fact: Yellow rooms make babies cry. So, designers, if you want to create compositions that make babies cry, use a lot of yellow. And expecting parents, if you’re debating whether to find out the gender of your baby before it’s born, definitely do it or you’re going to end up with a bunch of yellow gifts and an unhappy baby.
Yellow is the brightest of the pure hues, which means that it was reading entire chapter books before it turned four and can do a dinosaur-shaped floor puzzle with no help from Mommy and Daddy. (Sorry, can you tell it’s the holiday season and I’ve been spending a lot of time with my family recently?) It actually means that it’s the first color you’ll see against a black background and has very little contrast against a white background.
Most everything you read about the color yellow will begin with its positive associations—it’s the color of optimism, sunshine, and joy. Yellow, a warm color, is found on ribbons that represent the hope of people waiting for their loved ones to return safely from war. It’s said that it encourages communication and stimulates the mind.
But this little tidbit from the website Color Matters is an important warning for designers who want to use a lot of yellow:
Yellow, pure bright lemon yellow, is the most fatiguing color. Why? The answer comes from the physics of light and optics. More light is reflected by bright colors, resulting in excessive stimulation of the eyes. Therefore, yellow is an eye irritant.
This article goes on to say that in large quantities, cheerful, sunshiny yellow makes people irritable and argumentative. This may explain the disposition of my eighth-grade bus driver and every New York City cab driver.
The cultural associations with yellow, as with any color, are contradictory. While yellow is seen as overwhelmingly cheerful, if you ask someone, “What are ya, yella?” you’re calling them a coward (or you are worried about jaundice). A yellow journalist is one of low moral standards.
Globally, yellow is associated with the Ming and Qing dynasties in China, while in India it’s the color of the farmer caste, according to an article on the website Sensational Color. Yellow has specific associations in Greek (sadness), French (jealousy), Japanese (courage), Aztec (food, specifically corn), and Christian (greed) cultures.
Yellow is used to get attention and signify warning on traffic signs, as with this extra-adorable wombat crossing sign from Australia. In sports, it’s used on warning flags in auto-racing and to indicate penalties in American football.
And finally, if you’re a supervillain and need to thwart the Green Lantern’s fancy super ring, all you have to do is paint your death ray yellow and you’ll be fine, because as everyone knows, the Green Lantern does not like yellow, and his ring is powerless against it.
To sum up, pure yellow is like Reese Witherspoon: uplifting and cheerful in small doses, but too much of it at once is hard to take. And it makes babies cry.