Colours. What do they communicate?

Video credit: Vanessa Van Edwards, “Decoding colors how they affect behavior” January 7, 2014, via YouTube.

Dear All,
Have you ever felt that a certain colour is pleasant to eyes and another colour looks sad, yet another one is cheerful? This may be because each colour has a communicative potential on its own or in combination with other colours and factors.

First of all, what is the nature of colour? A lot of people think that colours are a part of the objective reality and are one of the basic characteristics with which an object can be identified. In other words, it is widely accepted that objects have certain colours. For example, we say that these two cars are identical except their colour: one is blue and the other one is green. However, speaking strictly in physical terms, colours do not exist; they are not an attribute of objects. They are rather the ability of different objects to reflect light differently and the ability of our brain and eyes to percept this. Have you ever met a colour-blind person? This person does not see colours in the same way as the majority of other people do. This happens because of this person’s physiological characteristics, not because an object suddenly changes its nature when this person looks at it. This is a simple proof (mind experiment as Einstein called it) of the fact that colours are subjective perceptions rather than a part of the objective reality so to say or a given characteristic of an object.

Now let us focus our attention on the communicative aspect of colours. The video above by Vanessa Van Edwards deals with the following colours:

1) Red – the colour of passion and aggression. It attracts attention, therefore, ladies can benefit from wearing red clothes for the first date. This colour also stimulates digestion.

2) Grey – neutral, more passive. If walls are coloured in grey, such ambience may give a low energy feeling to a person. This colour in clothing allows focusing on the subject matter more than on the speaker. It can be paired well with some other colours such as blue, purple, and orange.

3) Blue – the colour of the sky and the ocean. It is considered loyal, dependable, trustworthy, and wise. Wearing blue may communicate that the person who is dressed in blue is an expert, calm, and knows what s/he is doing. This colour may be a good choice for men to wear on a first date. Walls coloured in blue may help workers to make fewer mistakes when they work. According to some other sources (e.g. DeVite, 2009), blue is the colour of acceptance and whenever a person negotiates a thing (e.g. an interview), it may be beneficial to wear this colour.

4) Purple – this colour appears relatively rarely in nature and it was hard to make purple dye in the past. This is one of the reasons why this colour is associated with luxury and royalty. It is best when used in moderation and is paired well with grey. It may be a good colour for a gift wrap to make the gift look more expensive. When this colour is used in excess, it can make a thing look artificial and fake.

5) Orange is the colour of success and high energy. Orange clothes  may be great for wearing to a gym or for a sports team. This colour is also known for stimulating appetite and, therefore, is used by some restaurants to increase their sales.

Subtle varieties of colours according to Vanessa Van Edwards (2014) communicate the same meaning as their saturated variety, but with a lesser intensity. She also notes that colours do not dictate behaviour, but they can help to communicate certain things.

Besides the universal meaning of colours, it should be mentioned that colours can mean different things in different cultures (see post on giving flowers across cultures). For example, red is the colour of richness in Chinese culture and the colour of women’s beauty in Russian culture. White is the the colour of purity in some western cultures and the colour of sorrow in some Asian cultures.

Besides the cultural aspect of the meaning of colours, colours can also mean different things to individual people. For instance, if in the past a person has showed great energy in grey environment and won a competition, the same colour (grey) may become associated with high energy as compared to orange or to the original meaning of this colour.

In brief, this post has addressed the question of the communicative potential of colours. Besides certain universal “semantics”, colours can have different communicative potentials depending on the given culture and person’s individual experiences.

If you would like to contribute to the discussion, please add a comment to this post below. Thank you.

DeVito, J. A. (2009). The interpersonal communication book. (12th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.



  1. Have you aver heard the proverb “All cats are grey in the dark”? Well, this proverb means that under certain conditions all options have equal value. However, for the purpose of science, let’s read this proverb literally.

    Indeed, all cats and, in fact, all objects without sufficient light seem grey when it is dark. This grey colour may be of different shades, depending on the amount of light (with no light at all we would be unable to see even outlines of objects let alone their grey colour) and the “original colour” of objects in darkness. From the physiological point of view, this happens because rod cells which are responsible for night vision in human eyes do not distinguish colours (unlike cone cells which do and which are responsible for day vision).

    From the physical point of view, we do not distinguish colours because there is not enough light to be reflected from objects (like cats in the dark). Thus, it is not an inherent function of objects to change their colour at night, but rather the function of light and our ability to percept this. In other words, objects do not suddenly change in the dark, but it is we who start seeing them differently.

    This is another thought experiment proving that colours do not exist as attributes of objects. Rather it is the ability of objects to reflect light in a certain way and our ability to perceive this.


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