What does the colour red mean?

I’m trying to understand communication – visual communication how we send and receive messages consciously and subconsciously, through obvious signs which are telling us something, e.g.  traffic lights and the not so obvious, the clothes we wear and the way we stand.

Shannon’s  Model of the Communication  Process shows how communication can be degraded –

Shannon's Model of Communiication Process

INFORMATION SOURCE – someone creates a message

MESSAGE – this is sent by the information source and received by the destination

TRANSMITTER – this could be through speech (language) or a poster

NOISE – anything that interferes with the signal –  bad printing on a poster, bad workmanship,bad construction or it could be bad pronunciation, different cultural background; semantic noise – where the interpretation of a word or phrase is understood by the sender but for the receiver  has a different meaning or isn’t understood.

RECEIVER – receives message through ears or eyes

DESTINATION – interprets message

So how can we prevent the message from degrading, we had an example of this using Chinese whispers.

‘Star Wars’ was hard to pass along but the other  ‘the James Bond Movie, Casino Royale’ was easier, with this one if something was forgotten the bits could be filled in because most people                                              would remember the association to James Bond.

These are examples of entropic and redundant message.  Most of our verbal conversation in Great Britain is redundant.

Do you know why we use the word hello? I didn’t – its probably one of the first words we learn to say (or try to) as a child but it so happens that the word hello won over the word ahoy when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and needed a way of communicating with the person he was calling.   So we don’t just say hello we add lots of other words  into the conversation to keep that conversation going. When we’re on the phone we don’t just say goodbye and hang up  – with my daughters its always a laugh because we don’t want to hang up on each other we’ll say ok see you soon and don’t forget such and such or yes bye for now and remember to tell Granddad this and that and so it goes on.  My husband often repeats things – he never just says good bye.  In my previous ‘life’ as a beauty therapist, we never just said hello/ goodbye, there was always the social part, the customers expected it and its a way of keeping communication open and flowing – it shows people we are interested.  We were shown a cartoon by Gary Larson and its a good example of how we really don’t need to use all of the words we do – however the redundant words make more sense of the message.  We need them to make our message understood and I’ve just realised that I’ve used far to many words to explain all this!


In China their culture is the opposite of ours. In conversation they use tone and different syllable sounds instead of redundant words, their conversation is compact with short phrases and could seem very blunt to us Brits – for the Chinese the more you say the more you distance yourself.

We were also shown or rather heard the same principals with two completely different pieces of music. We weren’t told what they were until we had heard them both and asked to chose which we prefered. It was no surprise which one the majority of the lecture theatre liked best – the one with the most redundant notes/sounds – Mozart’s symphony no 40. The other piece  was written for the people of Hiroshima – this was very disturbing and jagged and  ‘hurt’ my ears (entropic).  We can usually tell by the melody what the song is about – love, anger, fun or lost love.

Because we are comfortable with this way of thinking, its the way we’re brought up, in our communication we use redundancy to make sure we’re understood if something is missing we can fill the ‘pieces of the jigsaw in’ we saw this in the examples of Chinese whispers. Redundancy leads to predictability – we know whats coming.

Entropy leads to a lack of predictability, messages don’t travel well and then we’re not sure what they mean. We need the redundancy to  make sense of it.

Another form of communication is semiotics – a way of talking about things.  Signs and symbols produce the message itself, (it isn’t where the message passes from one point to another as above) I’ll try and explain.

We were shown the colour red on screen and were asked the question what does it mean. I thought brilliant I know the answer to this! Red means love, passion sometimes anger, stop or  danger – well doesn’t it.  In fact red doesn’t mean anything – its the context it’s used in that has the meaning – of course I suppose I did realise this but I’ve been programmed over my almost 50 years to associate red with these things.  At traffic lights and warning signs red does mean stop and this works as long as everyone using them where ever they’re from understands this meaning. So if we decided to create new traffic lights with different colours we’d be in danger of destroying any meaning that’s already been established.  So  using colour and symbols is fine but a designer has to remember that in some countries these can have different meanings – its all down to context.  A good example of context is a bunch of flowers, they have a different meaning depending on who gives and who receives – a sick friend, a lover, a teacher, a neighbour and then for whatever reason you’re giving, the meaning can be read differently by the receiver.  Signs have two levels of meaning; Denotation what is intended and Connotation what is understood, if the message has worked, denotation and connotation will be the same.

There’s a lot more to semiotics and before I can go on I need to read some more about it.

This piece is just my understanding of my communication lecture and any mistakes here are mine and the way I’ve interpreted what Jonathan said.  There was a lot of noise in the lecture theatre on the day, interference from the speakers – very spooky and  grass cutting but please feel free to comment good and bad. I know I’ve got a lot to learn.

4 thoughts on “What does the colour red mean?

  1. Funny Judy I am just teaching this topic for Health and social care, will share what I have on it for you, have things on the communication cycle and denotation and connotation. You have made me think about how I am going to teach the next parts. 🙂

  2. Red is a physical color. In a Bauhaus test in the 1930’s, it was assigned to a square which represents stability. Also in Reiki it is associated with the root charka.

  3. You have to go into it pretty deeply then. All incredibly interesting. The title grabbed me of course! I enjoyed studying colour at Uni too

    Red has many other associations as well as the ones you describe including warmth and heat most probably from fire and the sun, red sunrises and sunsets, as well as passion associated with a racing heart, red for blood (pressure), hearts, love and romance. Red can raise the blood pressure in some people. Red in nature can mean danger, but also attraction. Winter berries are red so birds can find them easily. Red is the complementary colour of green, which is why a red berry will stand out against the green more than any other colour

    I find red incredibly calming and seek it’s warm comfort. I decorate my home with touches of red but not too much and I enjoy eating red foods (?) I don’t know why, mainly red fruits and berries

    Red as a symbol is open to interpretation, but over time I think it does come to have certain associations that we are all familiar with

    Great post Judy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s