Yellow: Color By Definition

color theory yellow

The Color Yellow

The color yellow. It is the brightest of our rainbow of colors. But what does yellow mean in graphic design and marketing?


As humans, we are lucky to see in color and be able to associate thoughts and feelings to those colors.


You’ve probably heard the saying “You’re yellow”, which basically means you are afraid of something. The saying is used a lot in Western stories. But yellow is so much more than just being afraid.


In nature, yellow is the color of sunflowers and daffodils, egg yolks and lemons, canaries and bees. In the human-made world, yellow is the color of Nickelodeon’s Sponge Bob, the Tour de France winner’s jersey, the Simpson’s characters, happy faces, post-its, and signs that alert us to danger or caution.

It’s the color of happiness, and optimism, of enlightenment and creativity, sunshine and spring.

The dark side of yellow: cowardice, betrayal, egoism, and madness. The color of caution and physical illness (jaundice, malaria, and pestilence), it’s no coincidence that the sources of yellow pigments are toxic metals – cadmium, lead, and chrome – and of course, urine.

Global Meanings of Yellow

  • In most cultures yellow represents sunshine, happiness, and warmth.
  • Yellow is the color most often associated with a deity in many religions (Hinduism and Ancient Egypt)
  • Yellow is the color of traffic lights and signs indicating caution all over the world.

Unique Meanings of Yellow in Different Cultures

  • In Japan, yellow often represents courage.
  • In China, adult movies are referred to as yellow movies.
  • In Russia, a colloquial expression for an insane asylum used to be “yellow house.”
  • Bright “marigold” yellow may be associated with death in some areas of Mexico.
  • Those condemned to die during the Inquisition wore yellow as a sign of treason.
  • A yellow patch was used to label Jews in the Middle Ages. European Jews were forced to wear yellow or yellow “Stars of David” during the Nazi era of prosecution.


Yellow in Graphic Design and Marketing


There are strong mustard yellows and deep yellow ochres, there are no dark yellows. Yellow is the only color that reacts badly to black: Add a little black and it becomes a sickly yellow-green.

Yellow is the most visible color of the spectrum.

The human eye processes yellow first. Which is why it is used for cautionary signs and emergency rescue vehicles.

Peripheral vision is 2.5 times higher for yellow than for red.

Yellow has a high light reflectance value and therefore it acts as a secondary light source.  Excessive use of bright yellow (such as on interior walls) can irritate the eyes.


So what does yellow mean to you?

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