The Difference Between Color Emotion and Color Semantics

Semantics can sometimes be a problem, because they don’t always accurately describe what we need to say. Conversely, emotions are difficult to convey in words. For a long time, there was a school of thought surrounding what was called “color emotion.” Now that term has changed because it’s been found to be inaccurate. The emotions that colors convey are not the same thing as semantics. The relationship between color and the psychological response of the person seeing it has been studied for a long time, though, and people are always trying to come up with new and better ways to describe what they see and what they feel.

To that end, color-emotion exercises have been created that are designed to work with both semantics and emotion. These ask people to rate how they feel when they look at a particular color and give insight into what a lot of colors mean and how individuals can expect to feel when they are presented with certain colors, along with why that occurs. The study and interest behind color semantics and these kinds of tests came from the color research that started in the early 20th century, and then later from Kobayashi’s colour image scales’ in 1981. Color emotion became the standard term in 1997, but most of the research that was done under that term actually involved semantics instead and so was inconsistent with what it was really called. Some feel the terms are splitting hairs and should be left alone.

In short, color emotion deals with words like happiness, anxiety, and excitement, and color semantics is involved with term such as heavy, light, warm, cool, passive, and active. The distinction, though, is not always an easy one to make, and most people will say that color gives them a certain emotion because of the way it feels. This ties emotions and semantics together very tightly, and it looks like this will always be the way where color is concerned. For some people it has deep meaning and for others it simply provides comfort or a smile, but it generally always evokes some type of feeling. Trying to separate color emotion and color semantics is important from the standpoint of technicalities and research, but not so important to the individuals who look at a particular color and react to it in some way that makes a difference in their lives and their emotions.

First Week Review

The website has been live for just over a week now, what better time for a little review.

Thank you to the nearly 15K visitors who have voted over 35K times on a growing list of words. We’ve already seen some great results, but I’ll review those at a later time.

Below you’ll find some links to blog posts about Cymbolism. Thank you to anyone who took the time to link to Cymbolism, more visitors will make this resource even more helpful:

Devlounge: Cymbolism: An Interview with Mubashar Iqbal
Wisdump: Cymbolism and color sensitivity
Hexday: Cymbolism
Team Forty: Cymbolism | Words & Colors

Please continue to submit your suggestions for words, and keep voting.

Color Association in Different cultures

Depending on the culture, what a color means can be very different. In Taiwan, a person wearing a green hat will make others think that his or her spouse has not been faithful. Yellow means that the person might be a harlot. In China, white is seen as the color for mourning and funerals as opposed to black that’s more common in the West. This is believed by some to be because Hinduism and Buddhism – two of the most popular religions there – both see death as the move to a higher and better plane of existence. Because of that, death has a much more positive connotation. In the West, death is generally seen as an ending and therefore the negative connotation that comes with the color black makes more sense to the average American person, as well as to many people in Europe.

In Islam, gold and green are the colors for Paradise, and green and blue are common colors in that country for many things. They are seen in and around most of the mosques and they are important for peace and happiness. In the United States and other traditionally Christian countries, color is not as associated with church, but it is associated with many Christian holidays. Purple and pastel colors are for Easter, green for Christmas, etc. When a person goes from one country to another, he or she often forgets that it’s not only the language and the food that changes. The culture is totally different, too, and that means that the way that color is presented and interpreted will be different. Even within a culture there will be differences based on other demographics, but they won’t be as pronounced as the more standard opinions that a culture holds overall.

These are just a few examples of colors and their associations that not everyone will be familiar with. There are some more common ones, like green for luck and red for love, but not all countries see things this way. It can be a poor choice to assume that you know what another culture means by a specific color, so asking questions is a good idea. You can also do some research if you’re planning a trip to another country so you know a bit about their culture before you leave. You can avoid offending people that way, get a better understanding of culture and how color affects us, and have a more enjoyable trip.

How Does Color Psychology Work?

ColorA lot of people only think of color as being cosmetic, but it’s actually much more important than that. Color psychology teaches that color is light and a source of life, meaning that there are a lot of reactions to it on a level far beyond whether it is cosmetically enjoyed. It is also seen to be nature’s signaling system, letting us know about danger and all sorts of other issues that might be important. Primitive man didn’t have the knowledge and the science that we have today to go by, so he (or she) had to use colors and other information to make a determination about what was safe and what was not. The primitive instincts that were thought to be important back then are not thought to mean much now, but our reaction to colors indicate that those instincts still matter.

Even though we might today be contemplating something in the grocery store instead of in a mud hut or in the forest, that doesn’t mean that we don’t care what color it is. Color has very powerful connotations, and if the color of something turns us off we’ll likely avoid that product and buy something that makes us feel better, even if we’re not conscious of doing so. Sometimes we just have a ‘gut feeling’ about something, and while not always related to color, it certainly can be affected by what we see and how that makes us feel. Red is a strong color, along with purple and other deep but vibrant colors. These colors can make us angry, and excitable, and also make us feel powerful. If we see something in the store with those kinds of colors on it we might feel empowered by buying it or it might turn us off. That can depend on the color, but also on our mood at the time, the package design, and what the product actually is.

There have been a lot of studies written on color psychology but none of them are really recent, and there’s a reason for this – researchers still can’t get results that are conclusive and descriptive enough to tell them anything more than they already know. This makes explaining how color psychology actually works very difficult, because there are not enough definitive answers to explain it beyond the psychological, emotional, and physiological responses that are seen. We know there is a reaction, we just can’t completely explain why.

The History of Color Psychology

history booksColor psychology came about through the work of several different people. Naturally, they differed on the opinions of color and how it was perceived, but there were enough similarities in the end to make it valuable to people who study color today. Some colors have basically kept their same association throughout the years. White, for example, has been used for weddings throughout many areas of the world for a very long time. In symbolizes purity and virginity, but sometimes also death. In China and Japan the color also used to be seen at funerals, where black is the traditional funeral color in the Western world. Red is seen as a warning in the United States, but also the color of love. A cultural difference or misconception could easily arise from this dual meaning.

Color psychology has sometimes been mistaken for phototherapy, but they are not the same. Phototherapy is the use of light to help a medical condition, such as jaundice. Color psychology is more closely related to color semantics in the sense that it is closely involved with how a person perceives color and how it makes that person feel. The symbolism of color comes partially from study but also partially from folklore. There are some trends that have been lost to history and the only thing that a person today would have to go on are the tales that have been told of colors used for ceremonies and what they meant. A lot can be learned from this, but not as much as having actual evidence that can be touched and examined.

Unfortunately, some of the history of color psychology is clouded with misconceptions that the people of the day didn’t have any way of determining were incorrect. One of these is the idea that some animals become enraged at certain colors. We now know that animals don’t see color the same way that we do, and most of them see things in shades of grey and limited color options, so the color that we see when we look at something is not the color that they see when they look at the same object. Most of these discussions and the information that they were based on in the past also involved people who ‘went crazy’ when they saw certain colors because they had such a strong reaction to them. These are only speculation and these kinds have things have not been confirmed.



Like many of the websites I build, Cymbolism is a tool that I wish already existed.

The theory that associates colors with moods and emotions has existed for a very long time. Whilst many studies have been conducted over the years to study the relationship, they only serve to provide a window into a powerful tool for any designer.

Cymbolism hopes to break open that window and provide valuable information for designers when creating their next project. Just how a color is perceived changes over time, and Cymbolism will keep track of those changes, making sure designers keep in tune with their targets.

We’re putting the finishing touches to the website, building up the word database, but we’d love to hear any thoughts you may have.

This blog will serve a dual purpose: informing visitors as to the latest and future developments on Cymbolism; and providing news and information on the theory of Color Symbolism, and Psychology.