Colors and Connotations

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Some people associate yellow with happiness or perhaps the color reminds them of funny videos of babies trying a sour lemon. But the meaning behind yellow changes depending on who you’re asking and where you’re looking.

In the world of art, yellow is a primary and warm color.

“Warm colors generally come forward in art,” Daniel Herro, head designer and preparator for the Haggerty Museum of Art, says. “It really pops out at you.”

Not only does yellow pop on a canvas, but Lynne Shumow, curator for academic engagement at the Haggerty, says, yellow is “a really sickly color. … It can be contrasted with (the) sunshine and happy.”

When mixed with black, yellow becomes an unattractive yellow-green color instead. Yellow does not always connect to joy.

Historically, ships raise solid yellow flags in order to communicate with other passing ships that an infection or disease is on board. In this case, yellow is alarming and serves as a warning.

“Color is one of the most important forms of non-verbal communication,” Linda Menck, professor of strategic communication, says. Menck teaches strategic communication classes that discuss the topic of color. “It’s very important in design and advertising to harness the power of emotion and color meaning.”

The meaning of colors changes based on many factors, including culture.

“In Egypt, yellow is (used) more to signify the dead, … (while) yellow in Japan stands for courage,” Menck says.

In contrast, in western countries, yellow is linked to cowardice with terms like “yellow-belly” and “yellow journalism,” journalism with little evidence. It can be used to describe something as “yellowing” with age, like wallpaper or paint.

Yellow can also trigger the senses of smell and taste. Citrus and sourness are commonly associated with the color.

“When you see a color, you look at it, … but it also plays with your other senses,” Menck says. “When you think of the color yellow, you immediately get sensations of smell and taste.”

Yellow can indicate caution as well. A yellow traffic light notifies drivers to slow their vehicles, and a yellow card in soccer serves as a caution to a player who has committed a foul.

When walking down the street, yellow is common because street signs, traffic lights, taxi cabs and school buses are all yellow. The color choice serves a specific purpose: to capture people’s attention.

“The combination of yellow and black is one of the highest-contrast pairs, which is why you see signs on the street … that are yellow and black,” Menck says.

Psychologically, studying in a room with yellow walls can be beneficial because it often has a stimulating effect on the mind, improves concentration and makes you feel energetic. However, yellow can also be overpowering and annoying if there is too much of it.

Even though there are many facts about yellow, Menck says, “We all have a personal relationship with color.”

For Alyssa Barrera, freshman in the College of Communication, yellow is a favorite color.

“I like the color because of how bright it is, and it is one of those colors that catches your eye,” Barrera says. “I really hate cloudy days, so I try to incorporate it into a lot of the clothing I wear and on objects I use every day, like my laptop, so I can see it if a day seems particularly gloomy. It reminds me of summer, the sun and sunflowers, which are some of my favorite things.”

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