Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Designing the user interface: text, colour, images, moving images and sound
Designing the user interface: text, colour, images, moving images and sound

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.3.3 Choosing colours with the right connotations

When you use a colour, you should think about what it is likely to mean to the people who look at it, as colours can have different connotations. Colours can even make people feel different. For example, pink has been shown to have a calming effect on emotionally disturbed people.

These connotations are partly cultural, so you may find they do not ring true for you if you are a member of a non-western culture, such as Chinese or Indian. For example, in western culture, red is often used as a warning colour, but in China it is a joyful colour. However, connotations can be learned and our society is increasingly international, so these differences are gradually becoming less of an issue. As communications improve, it is increasingly the case that the employees of multinational firms can have more in common with each other than with people living in their home towns.

Even connotations widely accepted in western culture, such as red for danger, need to be used with care. For example, a car may have a red light that indicates when the handbrake is on. This correctly warns that you could damage the car if you drive off with the handbrake on. However, it also effectively indicates that it is safe to take your foot off the brake pedal when the car is on a hill. This mixed message is rather confusing, and it might have been better to use another colour.

The situation is simpler for domains where established colour conventions already exist. For example, in British politics, red is associated with the Labour Party and blue with the Conservative Party. This type of colour coding can be applied more easily.

The colour saturation can also be significant. Colours aimed at young people tend to be pure and bright, whereas colours evoking the natural world are relatively subdued, and colours aimed at older people are deeper.

Fashion also plays an important role in the choice of colours, particularly for young people. For example, the colour of fashionable clothes changes regularly, as does the colour of home décor. Thus you should not use bright orange if it is thought to look dated.

As this area is so subjective, it is difficult to know how to apply these ideas. We are really straying into the domain of graphic designers. However, you still need to make decisions about the colours that you use, so you should do this carefully. Make sure that you apply the colours consistently, always taking into account the characteristics of the users, the tasks they are carrying out and the environment in which they will be using the computer system. It is good practice to evaluate your choices with users in order to inform your decisions.

Review question 2

Table 1 contains some colours and possible connotations. Do you agree with these connotations?

Taking into account these connotations and the colour intensity, suggest a background colour for the following e-commerce websites.

  • A site to sell CDs to young people under 25. The site aims to be exciting and trendy.

  • A site to sell outdoor clothing to walkers.

  • A site to sell expensive jewellery to older people.

Table 1: Connotations of different colours
ColourPositive connotationsNegative connotations
RedActive, invigorating, exciting, powerful, strong, energetic, attractive, dominatingAggressive
BlueControlled, abstinent, mysterious, intellectual, harmonious, deep, dreamy, faithful, rational, sensibleAggressive, introverted cold, melancholic
Blue/Green/TurquoiseRefreshingAloof, self-willed, unemotional, cold, sterile
GreenRefreshing, harmonious, optimistic, close to nature, calm, gentle, conciliatory, strong-willedJealous, envious, inexperienced
YellowColourful, extrovert, cheerful, youthful, lively, full of fun, lightSuperficial, exaggerated, vain
OrangeExciting, direct, joyful, alive, communicative, warmIntimate, vigorous, possessive, cheap
Dark redGraceful, serious, dignifiedArrogant
(Götz (1998) with modifications by the course team)



As the bracket at the foot of the table suggests, the course team disagree with some of the connotations – so you may too.

The following are only suggestions for websites; you may have better ideas.

  • A lively colour such as bright red, yellow or orange seems appropriate. All of these colours are active and exciting. As such, they should attract young people.

  • A subdued green could be used, as it would remind users of the countryside and the enjoyment they get from walking.

  • Deep red would create a dignified environment, which would be appropriate for the purchase of an expensive item of this sort.