The Culture of Colors

Inundated by red lights

Red is the color of warning. Of danger. Of caution. It’s used all over the world to denote the same sense of “Stop!” or “Be Careful!” I appreciate the value of that universal understanding of color in that way, or at least the global appreciation of red as a color of warning.

As I slowed to a stop at a busy traffic light on a cold rainy night recently, I was struck by the overwhelming number of red lights glaring at me. Yes, it makes sense from a safety standpoint, but once I had come safely to a stop, I was increasingly annoyed by the blasting of red light.

And that got me to thinking.

What is the history of our cultural understanding of red as the color of danger? Was the color of our blood the source of inspiration? Perhaps fire? The color of the first “uniform” worn or flag carried by a human enemy?

Once a color was decided upon, even by only a small minority, I can see why it was universally adopted. But why red? How differently would we feel about red, or blue, or green or any other color if that color was chosen as the color of warning?


  1. There is no such thing as color in nature. People say that it represents a wavelength of light, but this isn’t quite true. Yes, when we see yellow it might be a pure wavelength of light, but it could also just be a mixture of multiple wavelengths that our brains sum up to yellow. Color is what our brains see, it doesn’t exist outside of that.

  2. @Jordan,

    So, I feel like you’re making an existential argument about the pure nature of color. Is that correct? If so, I certainly appreciate your efforts there. I love that sort of conversation.

    That said, regardless of their true nature, colors do exist in our daily lives in that we, as a general, multitudinous, and diverse group of human beings, accept and rely upon their existence in our everyday lives. The perception forces the reality, if you will. Perhaps not in a true and pure sense, but nonetheless, colors certainly in a very real way. For example, “Officer, that light couldn’t possibly have been red. Red as a color does not exist.” is not an argument that will get on far when stopped for a traffic violation.

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