Get to Know Some Colors! Black and White are Colors

First, let’s dispense with the nonsense: Everyone who saw the headline of this post and said, “But [black or white] is not a color! It’s the absence of all colors!” you are free to go. I suggest that you spend the rest of your day here.

For those of you still here, I’m glad we can agree that black and white are both colors. All of those people who just left would have told you that black is not a color (and white is the presence of all colors) when you think about color as light frequencies, and that white is not a color (and that black is the presence of all colors) when you think about color in terms of physical pigments (like paint or ink). You can see more about this on the Color Matters website.

But let me ask you this: If one of those geeks is wearing a black (or white) T-shirt, and you ask them what color it is, would they tell you it’s not a color?

In terms of cultural associations, black and white are quintessentially opposite, as represented in the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol. In many cultures, black is associated with evil, mourning, power, and Johnny Cash. White is associated with light, purity, innocence, and Madonna (the Christian religious figure, not the musician). Of course, as always, these associations vary across cultures (for instance, white is the color of mourning is China).

Black is the color of famous fictional villains such as Dracula, Darth Vader, and the Oakland Raiders. White is worn by brides, medical professionals, scientists, and me between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In martial arts, the black belt signifies the highest rank, while the white belt represents someone who would run screaming from the person with the black belt.

In design, black and white are considered neutral, but they have starkly different effects. While it’s true that black and white are technically neutral, I have always considered black to be cool and white to be warm. (I wish I had some reference to point you to so that I could back that up, but I don’t.) Part of the reason for this is that black shares traits and associations with cool colors (it’s somber and subdued), while white has a lot in common with warm colors (it’s bright and energetic).

In this Polo Black ad and others like it, the color black (that’s right, geeks, I said it) is mysterious and sophisticated (not to mention dreamy).

Apple has used a white backdrop as a part of its visual identity for years to convey friendliness, openness, and accessibility. The famous Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s used white the same way.

In the end, even though most graphic designers use black and white more than any other colors, it’s easy to overlook their importance as design elements (probably because they are so prevalent). Once you accept that black and white are indeed colors, the next step is to carefully consider the substantial impact they have on your communication.

And if anyone tries to tell you that black and white are not colors, ask them what colors a zebra is.

Get to Know a Color! Yellow Makes Babies Cry

Photo courtesy

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.

With that, welcome to the third installment of Get to Know a Color! We’ve touched on red and blue already, so we’ll wrap up the primary colors, also known as the Fisher-Price triad, with yellow.

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.

Photo by Alan O'Neill

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.

Photo by Peter Firminger

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.