The history and meaning of blue

Hilda Morones

From the ocean to the sky, the color blue is seemingly everywhere. Civilizations have long venerated this color for its strong and practical applications. In the past it was a color reserved for royalty, but today nearly everyone walks around in blue jeans. Hospitals use blue on their walls for its relaxed effect, and graphic designers use the color to express practicality and strength in their designs. Read on to find out more about the meaning of blue and learn how you can use this popular color to benefit your own brand or business.

blue mountains snow winter
by Sergei Akulich via Unsplash

The meaning of blue before time

Considering the earth’s oceans, waterways and atmosphere, it seems the color blue is all around us, right? Well, it may come as a shock to you but most ancient peoples never “saw” the color blue. That’s right! Blue wasn’t recognized in early human history because many cultures did not have a word for it. And a strange thing happens in societies when there isn’t a word for something. Without a word, it becomes much harder to “see” the particular thing.

blue jelly fish jellies ocean
by Lance Anderson via Unsplash

An English scholar first sparked this theory in the 1850s when reading Homer’s Odyssey. Throughout the text, he would read descriptions of a “wine-dark sea” and began thinking, well, why a wine-dark sea and not a blue one? When he revisited the text he realized there was not one mention of the color blue.

Other scholars did some more research and found that the same applied to other ancient languages: there was no word for blue. In fact, ancient languages and texts first have words for black and white, historically. Black and white are then followed by red, then yellow and green. But blue is the last color to be recorded.

Escaped at gaseous state from the Kawah Ijen crater on Java Island in Indonesia sulfur combusts on contact with air, liquefies and run in impressive rivers of blue flames. Indonésia
Kawah Ijen crater, via Skunk Bear

This might sound a little crazy, but it actually starts to make sense when you consider flora and fauna and begin to realize that blue is actually a pretty rare color in nature. Even the sky isn’t a vivid, solid shade of blue, often appearing hazy, grey or even white.

The only exception are the ancient Egyptians who did have a word for blue. And coincidentally, they were the only ones who could reproduce the color, through dye.

Later, as the rest of the world began developing blue dyes (first shared from Egypt), blue finally entered the vernacular as a highly esteemed (and expensive) commodity, and thus became a part of their important, spiritual way of life.

The history of blue

Once blue became part of human language, and consciousness, it was recognized as a color of tranquility, divinity and trust.

The ancient Egyptians associated blue with the Nile river and its life-giving properties, and it became synonymous with royalty because of the work and cost necessary to recreate the ‘Egyptian blue,’ an ultramarine colored pigment.

Even when other civilizations began acquiring blue dyes, they were still so rare and costly to produce that blue continued to be reserved for the elite. This continued the longstanding association of blue with the divine.

blue watercolor la sal print texture logo
by nahp for davide ranghiero

Blue didn’t become widespread among the masses until the industrial age, when it became easier to manufacture, which led to the color becoming wildly popular and likely why it is still a favorite color around the world today.

Blue color psychology

Psychologically, blue has a natural calming effect and actually lowers blood pressure. This is why it’s a favorite color for hospital walls and decor. Blue can also make you less hungry and some diet plans even recommend eating off a blue plate if you’re trying to shed a few pounds.

But not all blues are created equal. Light blue carries many different qualities in society, and design, than dark blue. For example, mixing the color white into blue (tint) will create a lighter blue and will take on characteristics that are often associated with white, like health and healing, wisdom, faith and serenity. But if you mix the color black into blue (shade) then the dark blue takes on characteristics often associated with black, like confidence, power, intelligence and expertise.

But while these associations are nearly universal, blue can still mean different things around the world to different people.

Blue planet

blue planet energy logo clean modern tech
by surfacing™ for bryce w2
  • In the Western World, blue is considered a masculine color. Newborn boys are, after all, wrapped in blue when they leave the hospital. But that wasn’t the case until the early 1900s. Before then, boys and girls were both dressed in white because it was easier to clean. But in the new age of psychoanalysis, as well as mass production, retailers jumped at trends that distinguished between the genders, and voila! Today you have blue booties for the boys and pink booties for the girls.
  • Blue might be the masculine color in the US, but in China blue bears a feminine identity.
  • Because of its association with strength you’ll find many Indian sports teams dress in blue. And in Hinduism gods who “have depth of character and the capacity to fight evil are depicted as blue skinned.”
  • In Catholicism, the Virgin Mary is usually depicted wearing blue. In the year 431 the Catholic church “color coded” the saints and it was decided that the color blue would be the most expensive (at the time) and thus most befitting of “the queen of heaven.”
  • To “be blue” in Western culture means to be sad, but to “be blue” in German means to be drunk! So depending on how much you’ve had to drink on your German vacation you may be feeling both blues the next morning.

Okay! You’re all caught up on your blue history and what blue means, so let’s find out the best way to use blue for your own design or business.

When to use the blues

blue rivlr logo tech modern wave
by Akira X3 for jamesanthonyferguson

The future meaning of blue

Because blue promotes intelligence, it is often used to sell new and innovative products. Think of brands like Facebook and Twitter who have effectively paired blue with modern designs to bring freshness to their tech platforms. Using blue for your brand can make you appear clever and on the cutting edge. So, if you’re brand is all about the next new ‘it’ product try using blue in your logo or brand. Overall, blue’s gonna look pretty smart on everyone.

No blue for you!

blueberries blue fruit antioxidants berries farmer's market
by Katie Chase via Unsplash

While blue is a perfect color for almost any business that wants to be taken seriously, you likely don’t want to pair your brand with blue if you’re trying to sell food. Blue’s natural calming effect can counter hunger, so it won’t be a good pick if you are designing a food truck or creating restaurant decor. Blue is also a very rare color in food. There are blueberries, blue corn, and some purple potatoes, but not much more. (And really, despite their names, all of those are pretty purple.) So depending on how you use blue alongside food (plates, packaging, etc.) the overall effect can be unappetizing.

What’s not to like?

Blue is a favorite color among typically white-collar professions like legal, health, and education because of its strong connection to intellect, integrity and trustworthiness. Allstate’s blue hands logo makes people feel safe (and insured), and Chase and Visa’s blue logos let us know we can trust them with our life’s savings. And if you’re in an industry where you want to make people feel especially comfortable (dentistry, spa and wellness, etc.), a soft or light blue will definitely help assuage fears or discomfort. So we recommend going with blue if you hope to project any of these brand values. And honestly, who doesn’t?

In the end, most any business or individual can truly benefit from the color blue. Its popularity and many positive traits make it suitable for nearly any situation. So play with different hues of this favorite color to find what you like, and what blue means for you. Blue sky’s the limit!

Need some blue-spiration? Check out these great examples of blue logos!

The author

Hilda Morones
Hilda Morones

According to my online dating profile I’m “a fun, happy girl living in San Francisco. You should message me if: Bikes, dogs, and art.”

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