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  • Ren Gudino

Cool Sign, Bro: Cool Colors on Road & Business Signs

Last week, we talked about how our traffic light colors originated from train light messaging and how, after some mistakes and some technological improvements, we ended up with our standard red stop signs. These warmer colors have had an association with caution and warnings since then. Aside from association, this is also because these colors also attract more attention when seen. This is why temporary warnings are orange with black text, while permanent cautions are indicated with yellow signs and black text—since the yellow background and starker contrast have better night visibility.

What about the cool side of the color spectrum? This means all of your blues, greens, and purples, plus another standard sign color: neutral brown. Why are these signs colored the way we are?

Green’s association with go might explain why it's used for locations, or does it? We don’t automatically “go” to any site with a green sign. If green is also associated with nature, why don’t green signs indicate places with nature instead?

We don’t have all the answers, but we do have a few things to point out: green, brown, and blue are the most common sign colors other than regulatory black and white or attention-grabbing warm-colored signs. These three colors are also commonly found in nature, meaning they do not naturally draw attention like warm-colored signs. Interestingly, green only draws attention depending on the driver’s intent.

A study on how red and green environments affect people showed that people in green environments showed calmer dispositions (after studying heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) and fewer mood disturbances. Directional signage is the most visible signage seen on the interstate—meaning that whatever color directional signage is, makes it the most dominant color on the interstate. Opting for green creates a calmer environment on the interstate—at least, versus another sign coloring.

Blue also has a calming effect on people; however, blue’s calming effect is more of a restful calm. Green and red both show an increased or unaffected level of focus in study participants, whereas blue may cause a distracting level of calm where a driver is TOO rested. This is why blue is the signage color of choice for all the RESTS: rest stops, restrooms, and restaurants!

Our final color found in nature is brown, which indicates recreational and cultural interest sites. Usually, these are locations of interest for tourists, such as parks, historical places, and museums. We can’t forget black and white, an essential color combination in signage with the most substantial color contrast. This color combination is used for official info, where the message needs maximum visibility and doubtless clarity while not distracting the driver.

These colors and their effects can also be utilized in business signage. For example, green’s association with nature, focused action, energy, and eco-consciousness can be seen in the logos and branding of companies such as John Deere, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and HelloFresh. Blue’s calming effect is also associated with trust and security, making it the logo color of choice for companies such as GE, HP, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Facebook. Red’s energetic and attention-grabbing association makes it a trendy color for various companies: Netflix, Target, Lego, YouTube, and Nintendo, for example.

Let’s wrap this up with an example from a company that uniquely uses color and psychological associations in their directional way-finding to personalized interstate signage: Florida’s Disney World. There’s not a better example of neutral and earth tones only being noticed by an intentional viewer than Disney’s usage of “go away green” and “blend in blue.” These hues are designed according to the actual colors in the immediate surroundings, so passersby in their theme parks are visually drawn toward attractions, shops, and locations of interest vs. buildings that the park would prefer to be overlooked/ignored. This isn’t a set shade of green or blue but a spectrum of greens and blues meant to match its location as best as possible. This causes a person’s eye to process those areas as a part of the natural environment—allowing it to both go away and blend in.

Disney World used to be known for its iconic purple and red interstate signage, but that received a recent glow-up, which is probably for the best. The purple and red signs were bright and set themselves apart from the typical green, blue, and brown of interstate signage—however, it probably wasn’t the most visible contrast, the color combination is a bit dated, and there were complaints about the old signs not being particularly friendly for people dealing with color-blindness.

The new Disney signs are a bright deep blue, separating it from the blue currently seen on road signage, with text and blocks done in white or yellow for contrast. They look sleek and play with the use of blue as calm and trustful while adding youthful and energetic yellow. This starker contrast also optimizes visibility, and they can extend their branding outside of the parks themselves and into the actual roads and interstates.

Next time you notice a sign, take a second to think about what caught your attention in the first place! Was it the color, the contrast, the information, the font, or maybe the size or shape? All of these factors are considered when creating road signage. Businesses, companies, and local governments can also utilize this information for clarity and branding.

As for Disney’s new signs, we think they look pretty great. 😉

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