I recently attended two presentations on the psychology of color. Both times as I headed to the venue I gave myself a pep talk so I wouldn't turn the car around and head home. One presentation was good the other left me squirming in my seat. And at my first chance I snuck out the door.
The difference? The first presenter, a psychology grad student, started her talk by saying that most color psychology is nonsense. While the second, a visual artist, spouted worn-out over simplifications disguised as science.
Let me start by saying that I love color. I love all colors. And I don't believe that there is such a thing as a bad color. As an art student I've taken many color courses. As a professional I've continued to read about color theory while using color every day in my work. But after seeing hundreds of color psychology infographics on Pinterest and seeing pop psychology articles about color on social media—I was beginning to think my color knowledge might be off. (If you want to go down a scary color rabbit hole, check out the color info graphics on Pinterest.)
A quick dive back into the academic research reminds me that color is really complex.
• First, a color is only a color in relation to other colors.
• And second, our perception of colors is based upon our culture, gender, time, place, physiology and all sorts of personal and very subjective experiences.
Color is Relative
Most simply color does not mean the same thing to everyone.
The human brain does not let us perceive pure color. Other elements are always in play including light, shape, form, line, value, space and/or texture. And because colors layer and shift and move, color is flexible. The only way we can control a color is by controlling everything around it. (Note that even hearing certain sounds while viewing a color can effect our perception of that color!)
Colors alone make little sense. We've all heard about the color red. Red means urgency. Red stimulates appetite. Red is associated with excitement and passion. Red is high energy and pulls our focus—a frequent example of which is the stop sign. Think that for a minute. What does the environment where stop signs appear look like? On my leafy street the surroundings are pretty much green, brown and the gray of the pavement. A red sign stands out because the color is radically different from the environment (green is directly across from red on the color wheel)—that is why it gets noticed.
Furthermore, color is flexible. One color can be made to appear as two. Two can be made to appear as one. How colors are presented changes our interpretation. Josef Albers’ famous work shows us how our perception of a color changes based upon the colors around it. (Read about his theories on Brain Pickings.) For instance orange on a field of red is going to look different than the exact same orange on a field of yellow. The colors around the main color impact our perception of the color. And conversely two different colors can be made to look the same by placing them on varying color backgrounds.
The introduction of white and black elements similarly effects our interpretation of a color. White type on a colored background is always going to look larger than black on that same background. And white lines will make the color appear lighter and black lines will make the same color appear darker due to the Bezold Effect. (You can read about the Bezold Effect on Wikipedia.)
And finally, time can affect a color. If you stare at red dots on a white ground then look away to a white field your brain will create an after image of blue-green dots.
Color is Subjective
Many of the so-called psychological aspects of color are really emotional and personal interpretations and not scientific at all. Our feelings about color are informed by our personal tastes and culture. Generalities can be made. But these generalities will not hold true in other cultures, or with people of the opposite sex, or of different ages, or ten years in the future.
Technological developments such as the discovery of cochineal and indigo dyes, the creation of artificial dyes, development of the technology for offset printing and mass marketing of televisions—drive fashion, graphics and trends. The economy can also play a role in color trends. During the depression and World Wars drab colors ruled. Did marketing drive that? Or, could it have been that consumers didn’t have money to buy new clothes so solidly colored sturdy clothes that could be worn for many years by either sex made the most sense? (And could this be why my mother, a child of the depression, would never consider wearing the color khaki as an adult?) In this way color attaches itself to history.
But at the same time color also takes on meaning from the colors that support it. While the color red teamed with white and blue symbolized freedom and strength (at least to Americans and French), that same red when paired with green suddenly means Christmas (to those that celebrate Christmas). While the same red and green teamed with yellow are suddenly meaningful to Jamaicans and many African nations.
We bring our own cultural context to color.
And finally, there is the actual physical science of color. We know that no two people see color the same way. In fact, how I perceive color in my left eye is slightly different than my right eye. And 8.5% of the population—both men and women—are color blind and can't distinguish colors. Many people cannot reliably differentiate between similar shades of a color. And finally, science tells us that our personal ability to distinguish colors diminishes as we grow older. (If you want to see how your color detection abilities stack up you can try out these two tests.)
Color and Design
Like artists, designers have to keep tabs on all of this ambiguity and flexibility in interpreting color. We also have to know with the vocabulary of color and the axis of hue, value and chroma.
Hue = the position of color on a classic color wheel. i.e. yellow, violet, green
Value = the lightness or darkness of a color on a scale from black to white
Chroma = the intensity, brightness or purity of a color
We understand primary, secondary and tertiary colors and how to create color palettes. We understand color harmonies and we know how to balance the proportions of colors.
But as designers we also have to know the practical aspects of color. We have to know when to use solid colors for printing. We understand and work with the subtractive primaries of cyan, magenta and yellow plus the addition of black for developing an almost full spectrum of printed colors. And we understand additive primaries of red, green and blue for the reproduction of colors on our many monitors, televisions and phones.
We know the benefits and limitations of these color systems and learn when we need to enhance color through the use of special production techniques (i.e. custom inks) or through the development of design elements (i.e. shape, form, line, value, space and texture). And we have to know when not to rely on color at all and how to build contrast through other means.
So The Client Wants a Blue Logo...
Not a problem! As a designer my job is to use the tools at hand to figure out the exact hue, value and chroma of blue that is just right for you. And then help you choose the supporting colors, type and graphics that will be used in tandem with your blue to best deliver your message.
Color, it is what designers do!
See examples of how I've used color to solve my client's problems:
How a vintage color palette celebrates a historic anniversary.
How fluorescent colors and rich textured grays promote a luxury brand.
How unusual colors convey the exotic tastes of a packaged food.
How the colors of earth and sky convey the benefits of wind power.