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Be Careful with Your Colors: An International Primer

In an effort to be a good citizen of the world when traveling abroad, I have always relied on language to make connections.

Whether it is immersing myself for nine months with Italian CDs on my long daily commutes, learning some simple sentences and pleasantries in Czech (not easy!), or relying on Google Translate to help decipher Catalan during a hastily planned trip to Barcelona, I have discovered not only how much I enjoyed traveling, but how much I enjoyed learning to communicate with people who have had different life experiences from me.

As a designer, I also try to exercise good world citizenship by making appropriate color choices. Certainly, color has a language all on its own. Pantone. CMYK. RGB. Hex. Warm. Cool. But while colors elicit strong, random emotional responses from individuals, they also have very strong cultural meanings. So, I feel that one should have a basic knowledge of who you are designing for and understand that each culture may see and describe the meaning of color differently.

The world gets smaller every day, and we can only benefit by being active participants.


While not my favorite color, blue is probably the safest choice overall because it is considered calm and soothing. Let's not focus on "the blues," but instead immortality, as in Eastern cultures, or good health as in the Ukraine.


Now this is my favorite color and not just because of my Irish heritage! We think of environmentalism, rebirth and spring when we think of green — all positive! In Indonesia, however, green is traditionally forbidden. In the Middle East, green represents fertility, luck, and wealth, and is considered the traditional color of Islam.


Fire. Heat. Passion. These are the associations in Western culture. In Asian culture, red symbolizes good luck, joy, prosperity, celebration and happiness. In India, red is associated with purity, sensuality and spirituality. Think back to the wedding scene in the movie "Bend It Like Beckham" and Pinky's beautiful and colorful red dress!


In Western cultures, yellow is associated with happiness, optimism and warmth. Eastern cultures have similar meanings.


Another one of my most favorite colors! I always remember being in Amsterdam during the 2010 World Cup and seeing nothing but orange — the official color of the Dutch royal family, as it turns out. Orange represents autumn and harvest in Western cultures. In Eastern cultures, orange symbolizes love, happiness, humility and good health.


Historically, purple is the color reserved for royalty. In Japan, only the highest-ranking monks wore purple. And in the Catholic church, it is associated with piety and faith; while in Brazil and Thailand, it is the color of mourning. Of course, in the U.S., the Purple Heart is the oldest military honor given.


White symbolizes purity in Western cultures, but it was Queen Victoria who made the white wedding dress the tradition it is today. In Eastern cultures, white is the absence of color and represents death and mourning


In many cultures, black is the ultimate in sophistication, but it also represents evil and mourning. In the Middle East, black can represent both rebirth and mourning.

In Africa, it symbolizes age, maturity and masculinity.

As I head to London and its environs in April, I'm sure I'll experience firsthand that, "England and America are two countries separated by the same language," as George Bernard Shaw famously said. But, I'm sure we'll be able to bond over a pint and make a toast to this wonderful and colorful world we all share!

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