My six-year-old son Joel recently started wearing the Philadelphia Phillies clothing I’ve been buying him since he was born. I know that Joel resents the Phillies because they’re frequently on TV when he’d rather be watching Spongebob Squarepants, so I asked him about it. I figured he had decided to embrace the Phillies out of affection for his father or a desire to relate to his extended family, much of which is in Philadelphia. The actual reason is much simpler than that: after stints with green, yellow, and blue, red is now Joel’s favorite color.
This got me to thinking about how and why people relate to certain colors. This also made me hungry, because it turns out that red is an appetite stimulant, which may explain why there are so many fat Phillies fans.
Anyway, welcome to the first installment of “Get to Know a Color!” Every now and again in the coming months, we’ll delve into the meanings, associations, and usage of a specific color. (To paraphrase Buster Bluth, as I have done before, this party is going to be off the hook.)
The human eye can perceive roughly 10 million colors, so if I do one a week, I’ll be done in the year 194,317, or shortly before the Earth is swallowed up by the sun. To narrow it down a bit, Isaac Newton, who devised the first color wheel in 1666, identified seven pure spectral colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Since indigo and violet are both essentially purple, we can narrow that to six. Given that primary season just ended in politics, we’ll start with red. (Get it? Because it’s a primary color! Now we’re having fun.)
First, a note about creating meaning with color: The color wheel is your friend. We encourage designers to select a color palette using the color wheel. Colors that oppose each other on the color wheel—blue and orange, yellow and purple, or green and red—are complements. Used together, they create a bold statement. Colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel, like green and blue or orange and red, are analogous. They create a softer, subtle visual presence. Selecting colors carefully based on a specific kind of color palette will reinforce your message.
Look up color psychology online and you’ll find a lot of sweeping statements about specific colors. An article about color psychology on the website infoplease says this about the color red:
The most emotionally intense color, red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. It is also the color of love. Red clothing gets noticed and makes the wearer appear heavier. Since it is an extreme color, red clothing might not help people in negotiations or confrontations. Red cars are popular targets for thieves. In decorating, red is usually used as an accent. Decorators say that red furniture should be perfect since it will attract attention.
One important thing to keep in mind when you read this sort of thing is that these meanings vary across cultures. For instance, in China, red is associated with good luck, but in South Africa, it’s associated with mourning. If you’re on Wall Street, the last thing you want to be is in the red. In Jamaica, if you’re red, it means that you’re drunk. In Germany, if you had 99 balloons, they would definitely be red.
Another factor to keep in mind is that sometimes these generalizations can be contradictory. Red is associated with love and warm emotions, but it is also associated with danger and alarm. In the United States, red is the color of the Republican party; globally, it’s associated with communism.
Whatever the associations, red is the most intense color on the color wheel. According to Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color, the human eye sees colors as electromagnetic radiation measured in nanometers. Of all the colors, red has the longest wavelengths, followed by orange and yellow. (For more on this, have a look at “The Physics of Color” on the website Colors on the Web.) This is why, if we were at a really awesome party and you got us talking about color, you’d hear us say that warm colors advance and cool colors recede.
Because red is so intense, it is used to attract attention. In print, it’s frequently used as a highlight color. Online, it should be used sparingly because it’s tough on the eyes in large quantities on screen (not sure how Netflix gets away with what they do). In short, red is to color what bolding is to type, or what habanero chilis are to dinner (evidently, I’m still hungry). It’s a powerful tool that should be used carefully.