Color Stereotyping: The Dark Secret of Color Psychology

Paper dolls in different colors

Designers and psychologists have continued to crack the codes of colors and how they affect our mood, psyche and buying habits for decades. Yellow is the color of optimism, while red represents hunger and passion. While these ideas are backed by great examples over and over again, truthfully they are built off a false logic. Colors are cultural and deeply personal which no amount of over-generalizing could ever categorize.


Red is often labelled as a color that represents hunger which is reflective of the overabundant use in the food and beverage industry. It’s also described as a passionate color often in reference to the make up industry with lipsticks running the gamut of the red spectrum. Have you ever thought about how the predominant use of red, black and white in corporate attire plays into this? Perhaps clients are hungry for new products or executives show their passion about their company by sporting a red power tie. I know that often when I encounter a stop sign I feel like taking a bite out of them. According to the hard-fast rules of color psychology gory horror movies with ample amounts of blood sell more popcorn, because we get so hungry when we see that deep red. Red is hungry, and red is passionate. It’s also much more.


I’ve written about pink in the past, and I find it to be one of the most repressed colors from a psychological standpoint. Pink is often described as a feminine and fashionable color that goes quickly in and out of popularity. In the United States we often take it one step further by somehow associating this with fragility or weakness. First off, feminine never equals weak, and this is something that we need to change. Sadly, I often find myself troubled when I order a steak medium rare. It looks so delicious, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m feminine because I’m eating something pink. I have to avoid salmon all together, because it’s just too difficult to admit that I eat pink foods. I’m also a closeted Pepto-bismoler. In India, Mexico and China, pink is a celebrated color. I think it’s time that pink quit seeing so many color psychologists, and learn to accept the fact that it can be a strong, gender neutral appropriate choice for corporate America. Cultural bias can drive the success of color implementation with total disregard for the accepted meaning. After all, T-Mobile seems to be doing just fine.


I can understand the general reasoning behind many of the color theories out there, but I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around yellow being optimistic and cheerful. My personal view of yellow being the most irritating color in the spectrum couldn’t be further away from the accepted color psychology. Yellow is most often described as a bright and sunny day or the sweetness of a lemon. First off, I don’t recommend looking directly at the sun to see if it’s yellow. Secondly, lemons aren’t sweet. They are sour. Also, sunny days aren’t yellow at all. They have clear blue skies, bright green foliage and cool blue water. The only yellow in that picture for me is the bumble bee trying to sting me which isn’t very optimistic or cheerful. Likewise, most warning and caution signs are yellow and black. Personal experience, opinions and even color combinations drive individual interpretation of colors.


The color green represents growth, freshness and healing for many color theorists. It is true that a nice green cucumber is refreshing. However, moss and poison ivy are also green, and while it’s true that both represent growth there is nothing refreshing or healing about them. I often like to save my bread until it turns green and fuzzy, because that’s apparently when it’s the freshest. Honestly, the penicillin growing on the bread does have healing properties, but would you want to eat it? Nature should have listened to color theory and made it red, because then we’d all be hungry for it.


Black is often used to represent luxury like a stretch limo or elegance as in a little black dress. It’s formal, and tells us that this is something that we desire not want. So, why does the bad guy always wear black as well? It’s possible that he may just feel self-conscious about his mid section and doesn’t have the time to commit to his pilates with all of his evil-plotting and all. It could also be that black is also mysterious, easy to coordinate with, blends into the shadows or was on sale at Villain’s Barn. The context of the color is much more important than the stereotyped label associated with it.

While many of the theories of colors may come from a general truth, your audience isn’t general. Focus on the individual feelings surrounding a color for your specific market, understand how paring two colors together can change perceptions. Throw what you know about color psychology out the door. You wouldn’t stereotype a person, so why would you do the same for your brand color palette.

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