Color guidelines: It’s not black and white

color angels graphic
"Once upon a time, there were three women who went to design school — two in the United States and the other in Belgium. They were each assigned different areas in design. But I brought them here, and now they are at SXSW to talk about colors. My name is Charlie..."

That’s how it starts — or rather how I adjusted the original copy from the TV series for a talk we did at SXSW last year, from which this blog is adapted. The three women we’re discussing here are Leslie Jensen-Inman, Veerle Pieters (who did the graphic to the right), and myself.? All three of us are designers and we thought we’d have some fun with the presentation.

That’s how our “mission” got started.

Now, let's discuss color theory and internationalization, which was my part of the presentation.

Take a look at the different meanings of color in various countries. Think about who your audience is, and what context the colors are in. The challenge, of course, is that our projects are now on the internet, which has an international audience.

color chart with meanings

Colors are culturally influenced. Think about localizing sites so they are appropriate for the country based on the language instead of location.

Red and green

Finance chart in KoreanThe two colors green and red are a good example. In Chinese- and Korean-speaking countries, green is a negative color and red is a positive color.

When you design for a finance site like Yahoo! Finance, for example, the charts have to be the opposite of what users would expect in the United States. To the right, we show a Korean version of the chart.

The key here is to know your audience.

Blue and white

The Knot website in both colorsWhat if you are targeting an English-speaking audience but the topic is cultural? is a site for All Things Wedding. It is currently in blues and whites. White in Chinese cultures is used to convey death — not the message a traditional Chinese bride would want attendees to walk away with.

So has a page specifically for Chinese weddings.?They designed the page around the color red, which is considered lucky for weddings.

These little details are ways to engage your audience and let them know you are paying attention.


My fellow color angels and I find the following sites helpful.

In conclusion

Here are some guidelines when choosing color combinations:

  • Set the right mood.
  • Create enough contrast.
  • Create color harmony.
  • Create enough rest points.
  • Keep it simple.

I would like to thank... Jeremy Swanger, our videographer; Matt Harris, the voice of Charlie; and Chris Moeller.