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.