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The art of colour context for effective design

Stereotypical colour associations

Design is full of unspoken rules and obscure theories that, when applied, can dramatically improve design. Colour is used in design to attract attention, group elements, indicate meaning, reinforce a brand and enhance elements. If applied improperly, however, colour can seriously harm the form and function of a design.

We’ve all seen those stereotypical colour association infographics attempting to categorise colours into a few standard consumer responses like the broad statement of ‘Yellow = Optimistic’. While certain colours do broadly align with specific traits it’s important to recognise that colour can mean different things to different people and that we interact with colours on a number of different levels – perceptual, cognitive and emotional.

Yellow or red fire trucks?

I recently read a book called Universal Principles of Design¹ which documents a range of principles and lessons critical to successful design. One of the authors Jill Butler also created a short movie providing some interesting examples on how we perceive, think and feel about colour. In one example Jill questioned the best colour to paint a fire truck. She cited a study that found that painting fire trucks greenish-yellow rather than red reduced the risk of visibility related accidents by three times. So given this, it seemed like a no brainer and fire departments from major cities including Dallas, Cleveland, San Jose, Boston and Jersey City all followed the perception research and ordered yellow fire trucks. According to anecdotal reports, when cities started purchasing yellow fire trucks, firefighter morale plummeted, turnover increased, performance decreased so all of these fire departments switched back to red trucks. Why? The firefighters didn’t like yellow trucks because the colour yellow is often commonly associated with cowardice, weakness and sickliness (e.g. jaundice). While the colour red is widely associated with courage, power, and dominance. Characteristics commonly attributed to firefighters, about which they are rightfully proud. According to one Santa Monica Deputy Fire Chief firefighter morale increased overnight and said “They’re real proud to have red again”.

Colour considerations

This challenge of determining the one best colour for fire trucks demonstrates the complexity of picking the one best colour for anything. Jill Butler explains that there are two basic perspectives to consider when deciding the best colour for anything…

  1. How we perceive colour.
  2. How we think and feel about colour.

There is no substantive evidence supporting general effects of colour on emotion or mood. Similarly, there is no universal symbolism for different colours as different cultures attach different meanings to colours. The essential consideration for the relationship between brands and colour hinges on the individual goals and context you’re working within.

Rohan Berzins
Creative Director – Boldfish


Rohan is the founder of the brand-led creative agency Boldfish ( specialising in brand strategy, campaigns and communications. He brings a wealth of experience having worked with a diverse range clients and industry sectors ranging from startups right through to global leaders for over 18 years.


[1] Universal Principles of Design – William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler