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According to scientists, the reason warning signs are yellow and black goes way back. Apparently, our ancestors learned the hard way that animals and insects with those colors are dangerous. Certain bees, wasps, fish, and snakes with black and yellow coloring defend themselves with painful stings or venom. (They call it aposematism, which comes from the Greek terms apo, meaning “away,” and sema, meaning “sign.”) It’s a way for creatures in wildlife to alert potential predators that they pose a threat. Thus yellow evolved to become a natural way for people to communicate the need for caution. 

In addition, it turns out that yellow and black work even better together to attract attention. To the human eye, black makes yellow stand out, so when you put them together, the high contrast makes an eye-catching signal. There is a theory that repeating the color combination in a pattern may enhance the overall warning effect. The angled, alternating black and yellow striping on some road signs, for example, may be better at drawing attention because of the combination of the contrast and the repeating pattern. The yellow & black combination also works because you can see it from a distance. Also, the effect works well in sunshine and in shadow. 

High Visibility Signs

The use of color to send a signal or instruction is, of course, most commonly used in connection with automobile traffic. Every highway sign or street sign you see when you drive has been carefully developed over time, with specific colors, shapes and sizes designated to relay specific information. While yellow is generally reserved to communicate the need for caution instead of a direction to stop, the stop sign was originally yellow with black letters. Because of traffic lights, the color red was already recognized as the signal to stop. But designers found that signs with red paint tended to fade over time. So they used yellow as an attention-getter. They switched to red after engineers came up with a reflective red paint that does not fade.

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