Colours and Culture – don’t always believe what you read

Deep Purple on stage, photo: Lukasz Ryba, creative commons

The ‘worldwide’ bit of the web made many of us realise that our web designs have the potential to reach the whole world. Some of us work for organisations that explicitly want to attract audiences from many different countries. And gradually, the thought dawns: what if those people over there aren’t just like us? Will they like what we like? In particular, the discussion might turn to colour. Will our colours appeal to those people over there? To which the usability professional immediately answers: “Let’s go and ask them”. Back comes the answer: “Can’t afford that. Why don’t you find out what the research says?” Right then. Let’s sit down with Google, or maybe even a library catalogue or two, to find out what the cultural impact of colour might be as it relates to user experience of websites.

Simplistic advice on culture and colour

Sadly, the easy-to-come by advice will be along these lines. Here’s an extract from one site, which I’ll keep anonymous. It starts promisingly:

“If you use colour on your website, then you should be aware of how your audience views those colours. This is especially important if you are designing a site that is intended for an audience of a different culture than your own (or a global audience). The cultural basis for color symbolism can be very powerful, and if you don’t understand what you’re saying with your colors, you can make big mistakes.”

And then goes on to give the ‘cultural significance’ of various colours, for example:


  • Japan: white carnation symbolises death
  • Eastern: funerals
  • Western: brides, angels, good guys, hospitals, doctors, peace (white dove)

And here’s a piece from another one (published by Xerox, which should know better):

“For the Chinese, white represents the west, autumn, metal, and mourning. White gifts are associated with funerals, and a woman never wears white unless she is in deep mourning. On the Chinese stage a dignified person wears a white face, while a comedian usually has a white nose.”

Let’s look at one particular claim: Chinese brides avoiding white because it is the colour of mourning. A few years ago, I had the opportunity of travelling to Hong Kong. On a sunny Saturday in the pretty Victoria Park, brides and grooms were queuing up to get their pictures taken. And guess what? Every single bride was wearing a white dress. Hmm. Asking my Chinese friend about her marriage in Shanghai reveals the truth: the modern Chinese bride likes to be photographed in a range of outfits, including both red and white.

That’s just one illustration of the problem.

What is ‘a culture’ anyway?

Some of the difficulties in stuff that I’ve seen:

  • the strange assumption that cultures are somehow closely aligned to national borders, ignoring linguistic overlaps, historical changes to cultural borders, and all sorts of cross-border cultures that exist;
  • the idea that people can only belong to one culture or cultural group;
  • a very strange idea that historic uses of colour may persist unchanged or unchallenged;
  • most of all, the mistaken idea that colours seen in one context may work the same way in another context.

Just one of my favourite examples: I’ve found a reference to ‘purple being a regal colour in the UK’. Well, maybe. Or it just might be associated with a popular brand of cheap chocolate. Or ‘Deep Purple’, the 1970s rock band. Or the purple vestments worn by priests in some churches during Lent. Notice that none of that has got anything to do with the web, particularly. Nor are there any links between the different usages. I doubt that the Deep Purple fans were thinking much about their Lenten observances, on the whole, in this very secular country.

What is ‘a colour’?

The other day, I was testing some paper documents. One group came as a set of three, and in a laudable attempt to help the users, each of the three was on a different colour of paper. The instructions then described each document in the set using its title (they were long) and the paper colour.

Only problem: the colours themselves: yellow, pink, and ‘the other one’. I asked users what they would call the three colours and they said; “yellow, pink, and um err… light orange?” (or variations on that theme). The instructions said “peach” in black text on a white ground. Legible, but not a good way of helping users to identify the colour being described. This wasn’t a huge problem, as the users could work out what ‘peach’ meant by eliminating the yellow and pink. It was just a bit harder than it needed to be.

This problem gets worse as the colours get more subtle. I’ve come across catalogue descriptions that say things like “available in emerald, loden, olive, and sage” all shades of green. I’d expect them to be respectively a deep, bright green, a dark, almost black, green, a darkish browny green and a light greyish green. I admit that my descriptions don’t sound as good. Ideally, I’d have just quoted a few Pantone numbers and then you could look them up with precision but that isn’t going to work in an ordinary e-commerce site.

How is the colour used?

And that brings me to my final point of scepticism: the way the colours are actually used. Which colour exactly are you thinking about? What about the saturation, background, neighbouring colours? What if that bluey green is an accent colour in a palette of mostly reds and oranges? Or used as the only contrast with white? I’d expect to get a variety of different reactions from my users in the UK when I tested the different colour schemes with them. Why wouldn’t my international audiences have a variety of opinions as well?

So pick your colour advice with care and do loads of testing.

This article first appeared in Usability News, 4 December 2008

Picture of Deep Purple by Anneke_B, creative commons