Let’s address two colors that go hand-in-hand: black and white. Here’s your guide to understanding the colors black and white, and how to design using them.
Before exploring how black and white speak, let’s first deal with the “elephant in the room.” Some of you may have seen the title of this post and said, “But wait, [black or white] isn’t a color, it’s the absence of all colors!” If that’s you, we suggest that you keep reading.
In terms of light frequencies (additive color theory), white is the presence of all colors and is, therefore, a color. Black is not; without light everything is black. However, when thinking about color in terms of physical pigments (subtractive color theory), like paint, the tables turn; white is not considered a color while black is the presence of all colors. You can learn more about this on the Color Matters website.
With color theory and your opinion of what is and isn’t a color aside, we would all agree and accept that black and white are indeed colors. After all, we describe them as such. And let’s face it; if anyone tries to tell you that black and white are not colors, what would they say if you ask them what colors a zebra is.
Black is visually heavy. Its message is therefore very strong. Black’s most common association is power, authority, and strength. It is for this reason that too much black can become overwhelming. In stories of good versus evil black and darkness are always symbolic of the villain (Darth Vader being a prime example). Other associations of black include intelligence (black horn-rimmed glasses), professionalism (suit and briefcase), mourning, and mystery. As a deep and serious color, black can direct communication in a powerful way.
White is considered safe and open. While black is symbolic of evil, white is directly linked to that which is righteous, good, and peaceful (sticking with the Star Wars theme, Luke Skywalker is an effective example). Furthermore, white projects clarity, cleanliness (doctors in white coats), purity (wedding dresses), and salvation. White is said to promote creative thought (a blank whiteboard) and is also synonymous with fresh beginnings. As a positive, clear, and open color, white can direct communication in a powerful way.
History and culture shed light on how black-and-white associations have become so easily accepted as being in opposition. The most recognized example of this is represented in the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol, an embodiment of contrary forces (good and evil) that are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world. In martial arts, the black belt signifies the highest rank (power), while the white belt represents someone who would run screaming from the person with the black belt. In Aztec culture, black represented war because the black obsidian glass was used as the cutting edge of battle swords. In battle, a white flag is universally recognized as a symbol of surrender. Black is evil; white is good. Black traps space, while white opens space. Black evokes sophistication; white communicates innocence. It’s clear: black and white are opposites.
This simple ad for Ralph Lauren’s Polo Black uses black in an overwhelming, yet purposeful way. The ad is dark and strong, targeting men. Furthermore, it is serious and professional, communicating qualities of mystery and depth.
Apple has consistently used white as the backdrop of their marketing campaigns and for good reason. The company emphasizes through their primarily white design that they care about cleanness, openness, and creative thought. This Apple iPad ad is a perfect example.
It’s important to recognize that although quintessentially opposite in a cultural and visual sense, black and white shouldn’t compete, but rather complete when used in professional marketing. It’s been said that “opposites attract.” To put it another way: contrast creates completion. The convergence of black and white (more so than any other color combination) is an example of how two divergent colors communicate more powerfully together than they do on their own. Check out the balance, peace, and clarity of this site.
Using the visual balance of black and white with an accent color leads to powerful messaging and is a helpful strategy when wanting to draw attention to a specific object or creating a visual “pop.” These black-and-white sites do just that. By accenting certain parts of the page with a different color, they direct the viewer exactly where they want them to go.
Even though black and white are used far more than any other color, it’s easy to overlook how they are used and even why they are used. For instance, when black text is used on a white background we don’t question why this is the case. But, this practice is so common because the contrast of black on white is the most readable and practical color scheme. The influence that black and white have is subconscious. Therefore it is important to carefully consider the substantial impact they will inevitably have on your communication.
We’ve merely scratched the surface of how black and white communicate. The conversation could go on and on about how these colors impact our minds and attitudes. So, why not continue the conversation? Share some of your experience with black and white. What are some other associations with black and white that we didn’t talk about? Stay tuned as we continue to explore the complex nature of a specific color each month and its impacts on our attitudes within today’s culture and economy.