Historically, orange had limited use in Western culture. You don’t see it used often in illuminated manuscripts and Renaissance art.
The last time orange enjoyed any great amount of popularity was in the 1970s, where it’s “burnt” variation was used extensively alongside harvest gold, avocado green and brown for fashion, interiors and products. That color palette defined that decade.
But if you look around you, you’ll notice orange is everywhere — in advertising, architecture, fashion and products. It’s the new power color.
Orange may not be on your list of favorite colors, but its physical and communicative characteristics make it very useful in art and design.
Orange is attractive
While culture and personal experience play a large role in how colors are accepted and used, there are universal responses to color that transcend personal and cultural preferences. For example, red acts on the pituitary and is the most dynamic of the hues. It always attracts attention no matter how its used.
Because of their inherent dynamic quality, some hues are more easily noticed than others. A color’s dynamic is due to wavelength and position on the color spectrum.
Orange is a warm, highly visual secondary hue in the 12-hue color system. The two primaries that mix to create it are yellow and red.
Since the human eye is immediately attracted to new things — things that contrast from what we’re used to seeing — we can use color to excite and get attention. Orange’s visual properties make it useful to make things stand out. We can use it in unusual color combinations for certain effects.
Orange is characteristically eye-catching at full saturation, and its tint, shade and tonal variations are used broadly in branding, marketing, sports and cosmetic products.
Orange is dynamic
In appearance, orange’s dynamic is not as forward-moving as red, but it advances more quickly than yellow. The tendency to advance or recede visually based on wavelength, with the red end of the spectrum being the longest and the violet end being the shortest.
That makes orange highly visible in most environments. We use it on traffic cones, safety vests, hunting attire, buoys, construction signs and heavy equipment. Being highly visible at a distance and because it stimulates appetite and is associated with ideas of informality and affordability, orange is often used alongside red and yellow in fast food branding.
In design, you can deploy it to attract attention and add visual energy. It will liven up any design quickly.
Physical and psychological effects of orange
Orange affects us by increasing oxygen supply to the brain, which produces an invigorating effect that stimulates mental activity. It is highly accepted among young people.
It acts on the human nervous system to stimulate appetite.
It encourages movement and conversation among groups of people when used on interior walls.
Bright orange may be a difficult color for some people to wear, but the softer versions used in shirts, jackets, scarves and hats enhance the complexion.
Orange in messaging and marketing
Bright orange is a color that communicates affordability. It’s considered fun and novel, so it’s not a good color to use for serious messaging. It’s limited as a “professional” color for use by attorneys, physicians or accountants. On the other hand, it’s a great fit for fitness trainers, sports teams, outdoor activities and gyms.
Tints of orange are far more accepted for packaging and marketing than the fully-saturated hue. Light oranges, such as peach and melon are used in cosmetics packaging and products. Also, the tints convey a sense of health and wellness.
We associate orange with mechanical power, industry and manufacturing. Slightly-shaded orange is often used on power tools and is the primary brand color for The Home Depot. Chipotle uses orange and black in its branding and industrially-inspired interior design.
Symbolism and Meaning of Orange
Orange blends the energy of red and the cheerfulness of yellow. We associate it with joy, sunshine, tropical foliage, and heat.
In nature, orange shows up in autumn, so we naturally tie it to fall, harvest, pumpkin spice lattes and warmth. It’s very strongly associated with autumn, and far less favored in spring.
Orange represents enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, creativity, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, and stimulation.
Coupled with black, orange conveys heavy-duty, earth-shaking mechanical power. Used with gray, the sense of power is refined, as with hand-help power tools.
We associate orange with fruit and other sweet foods.
In Northern Ireland, orange is the color of the Protestant movement.
In 2004, orange was the color used by the protest movement that eventually got Yushenko voted in as president of Ukraine.
Orange is also significant in the Hindu religion, and in some Native American cultures where it represents friendship and kinship.
It’s an informal, casual and relaxed color in home interiors and backyard living.
As a citrus color, orange is associated with healthy food, juicing and vitamin-packed vegetables.
Orange is considered youthful due to its visual energy, and somewhat “in-your-face” in attitude.
In heraldry, orange is symbolic of strength and endurance. This alludes to its biological actions
Shaded oranges are similar to earth tones in their “brownness” and associations with terra cotta clays, woods and animal fur.
In art and design, color choices cannot be arbitrary.
Color is a complex and often tedious topic of study. It’s the most complex of the form-based design elements. We need to study it because we see in color and it affects us physically and emotionally. We also need to understand how it works technically and in different mediums.
You might be a watercolor painter, but if you have an online portfolio and use social media and direct mail, you need to deal with color in paint, in print and in digital.
In art and design, color choices cannot be arbitrary. We need to use color in the right way to communicate to those we’re designing for.
People are better educated about color than ever, and use it increasingly to feel good about themselves, validate their ideas, and connect with movements and causes. So as a designer or artist, you need to be on top of things to know how to use color effectively in your work.