The Psychology Behind the Colors of Safety
We see signs in red, yellow, green, or blue, and we pay attention because we know they contain important information. At a glance and almost without thinking, anyone can tell that there is a safety hazard and judge how severe it may be. It’s what makes color-coding a truly brilliant idea for safety. Even in unfamiliar places where we don’t know our way or speak the language, the colors of safety demand our attention and we can count on them to help us understand our surroundings. It’s not magic, it’s psychology; every color carries its own meaning and each one evokes a different reaction from us.
Arguably the most powerful color of all, red not only demands attention but action. Whether we associate red with passion or anger, we agree that it conveys urgency which makes it perfect for warning us of impending danger. In fact, according to a color psychology consultant, it takes 25/100ths of a second to register 3 words of a text but only 2/100ths of a second to register red. And in emergencies, even 100ths of a second count. That’s why we use red for all emergency signals, alarms, and signs conveying high risk of injury or death.
It won’t come as a surprise that yellow is the brightest color on the visible spectrum and the most noticeable shade to the human eye. Many of us are drawn to yellow for it radiates feelings of warmth, joy, optimism, and inspiration. And this long-wavelength color is known to stimulate mental activity and awareness. In other words, it’s hard to miss. It follows that we’d use it to warn us to use caution and signal minor risks.
Much less intrusive than red or yellow, green boasts a unique ability to remain recognizable while blending in. Known as the universal color for nature, we often associate green with harmony, freedom, and peace. Ever noticed it’s used to represent feelings such as liberty and healing? Think emergency exits, directions, and first aid kits. We see green and assume it’s safe to proceed.
Blue is a popular color in the marketing world because it’s associated with wisdom, trust, and dependability. It’s also seen as neutral and the color least likely to evoke negative emotions. Visa, Ford, Walmart, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn—there are no shortage of companies that lean on the mentally soothing qualities of blue. In the safety world, this has translated into its use on mandatory instructions and safety information. The idea is that following blue signs will be perceived as the right and intelligent thing to do. That’s why it’s used to convey important safety information in the absence of immediate hazards.
What truly makes this work is the help of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) responsible for standardizing the colors and basic shapes of safety signs, making them recognizable worldwide.