Get to Know a Color! Good Green, Bad Green

If you are green over your neighbor’s green thumb, you are filled with envy at how good she is at making plants grow. If you’re green around the gills in the town green, you’re about to throw up in a common public area. And if seeing your friend’s wallet full of greenbacks makes the green-eyed monster rear its ugly head, you’re jealous over how much (American) money your friend has.

And if you think this is the stupidest hat you’ve ever seen, then you have good sense.

As with all colors, green has many and sometimes contradictory meanings. It is associated with nature and regeneration. In fact, the word itself has its roots (ha!) in the Old English grōwan, which means to grow. It has a relaxing effect, which is why guests on TV shows calm themselves in “green rooms” before going on air. (Though based on the review I heard of his performance at the Oscars, James Franco has other ways of relaxing before going on air.)

On the other hand, green is associated with illness, jealousy, and inexperience. If you’re roping cattle, which you probably are not, the last thing you want to be is a greenhorn.

According to Sensational Color, green represents paradise in Iran, eternal life in Japan, hope in Portugal, and beauty in China. In Ireland, green represents leprechauns and rolling hills and fertility and Saint Patrick and bread that’s been left out too long and pretty much everything else. I think it’s the only color they have over there.

Green has a decidedly negative connotation with NASCAR race car drivers. When I first read this, I assumed it was because NASCAR is about the least green activity I can think of—43 cars burning as much fuel as possible for up to five hours at a time. The real reason, it turns out, is that there was a really bad accident involving a green car in 1920.

Though green is a combination of yellow, a warm color, and blue, a cool color, it is generally considered a cool color. That said, there is such a thing as warm green (lime green, for example). I used a warm green to promote the NAI International Conference in Panama (which starts this week!). While cool green has a calming effect, this warm green has a higher level of energy about it.

According to most sources, green takes up a larger portion of the spectrum of colors visible to the human eye than any other color. It’s technically a secondary color (along with purple and orange), but I have bestowed upon it the status of Honorary Primary Color. This is because there are two warm primaries (red and yellow) and only one cool primary (blue). So whenever a designer is using the primary colors and wants to achieve warm/cool balance, they add green.

Used with its complement, red, green creates a vibrant, lively palette (and one that for many is closely associated with Christmas). A low-contrast, analogous combination like blue and green creates a calm, soothing palette. In fact, a blue-green palette has such low contrast that, according to Wikipedia, many languages in Africa and Asia do not even have words to distinguish between the two colors.

When it comes to interpretive design, we encourage designers to select meaningful colors based on some sort of natural or cultural feature related to their site or organization. One of my favorite examples of meaningful, effective use of color is this is this illustration by Michael Schwab Studio, which perfectly captures the thick canopy of Muir Woods National Monument through simple but considered use of color, including a just-right shade of green.

Because of its associations with nature, green is used in design to represent organizations that are environmentally friendly. Of course, this has led to greenwashing, where corporations or other organizations falsely claim environmentally friendly practices. (Before I forget, I should point out that this Interpretation By Design blog appears only on organic, FSC-certified, recycled computer monitors. That’s why it’s so expensive.)

Organizations that want to emphasize their focus on nature use organic forms and a green-based color palette. The logos above are from a collection of 75 green logos on the site 1stWebDesigner.

To sum up for designers, green is a pleasing, popular color that is safe to use in large quantities, unless the thing you’re designing is a Yankees hat.

Also in this series: Red, Blue, Yellow, Purple, Orange.


6 thoughts on “Get to Know a Color! Good Green, Bad Green

  1. Greenwashing is my pet peeve. Don’t even get me started. I could write a blog on that.

    How could you forget one of the most awesome green things in the world… the Green Monster (or, the Green Monstaaaahh! as it is known locally)?

  2. Paul, nice NASCAR reference, where did you dig that tidbit up from? I kinda like the hat.

    Amy, I even have to give the monster some respect.

  3. I’m shocked that you wrote a Get to Know a Colour! (yes, I used the proper Canadian spelling) on the subject of Green without making reference to Shea’s epic post, “Seeing Red (and Some Green).” Anything that references the Muppets deserves a tip of the hat.

  4. I’m not sure what someone put in Shea’s corn chex, but please keep doing it.

    All of the Michael Schwab designs for the CA State and National Parks are brilliant– the bold statements of color and typeface are so popular that apparently people kept stealing his Golden Gate National Parks posters off of bus shelters in San Francisco. I have a Natural Bridges State Beach t-shirt with his design on it that is a favorite. He did most of the work for Santa Cruz State Parks pro bono, I believe, which is very cool.
    One of these days that Panama poster is going to be worth something– I just know it. I should get Paul to sign one for me before he becomes too famous.

    Link to a cool blog — graphic design success tips from Michael Schwab:

  5. I agree with Paul’s statement, “To sum up for designers, green is a pleasing, popular color that is safe to use in large quantities.” I am happy to report that Paul used some of his quantities of green to buy me some Panamanian cervezas this week at the NAI International conference.
    Kudos to Amy bringing the “Green Monster” in to the conversation and kudos to Shea for giving the monster some respect.
    As for the hat, no NY hat would be of interest, until it says NGSY.

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