In Living Color

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From design and fashion to marketing and beyond, different hues shape how we perceive the world.

By Tiffanie Wen

Color is such a part of daily life that many are not conscious of just how strong its impact can be. From attention-grabbing red to calming blue, scientists, researchers, designers and other hue experts are discovering that color is critical to perception, influencing everything from mood to performance to buying
decisions and more.

The Pantone Color Institute estimates that 80 percent of the human experience is filtered through the eyes. While scientists have not been able to confirm an exact figure, it’s clear that most people who can see rely heavily on their eyesight before other senses: about 30 percent of the neurons in the brain are devoted to sight, for example, but only 8 percent are devoted to touch and roughly 2 percent to hearing.

The Psychology of Color

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Color plays a critical role in branding and marketing, as it’s used to shape consumer perception. | Photo by Luciano Mortula/Shutterstock

“Like many things, color influences us on a daily basis, but we are not always aware of it,” says Lauren Labrecque, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago whose research expertise includes sensory marketing and design with a focus on color. “Biologically speaking, color has always been important for us to understand the world—color tells us if a strawberry is ripe, if food has gone bad, and can help us identify if something is poisonous or not (think snakes). We still rely on color to help us understand the world.”

A study at the University of Georgia, for example, asked students about their emotional reactions to certain colors and the reasons for those reactions. The study found that students had the most positive emotional responses to principle hues—red, yellow, green, blue, purple; followed by intermediate hues, like blue-green. Achromatic colors, including black, white and grey, elicited the fewest amounts of positive emotions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found people had strong associations to specific hues. Green, which received the highest number of positive responses, reminded many people of nature and trees, and created feelings of relaxation, happiness, comfort, peace and hope.

Yellow was associated with sun and summer and created feelings of happiness and excitement; blue was associated with the ocean and sky and made people feel calm; and purple was associated with both children and laughter.

But how we respond to certain colors also depends on our personal experiences with them. “I always warn people away from generalizations about color and mood,” says Amy Woolf, an award-winning architectural color consultant. “Every individual has his or her own unique relationship with and reaction to color. A soft white might feel calming to one person and agitating to another.” 

And all colors have more than one association. In the University of Georgia study, for example, while blue was linked with relaxation for some participants, others tied it to depression. The color red also led to polarized reactions, with some associating it with love and romance, and others with blood and evil. With the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum, red makes things appear nearer than they really are and therefore jumps out at you and grabs your attention. This has several implications. For example, one study at the University of Rochester found that men were more attracted to a woman dressed in red or whose picture was framed in red, and were more likely to spend more money on a date with her.

Red is also associated with competition. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that potential online shoppers on auction website eBay would bid higher and more aggressively against other bidders when the background was red, as opposed to blue. But red has also been shown to make our reactions faster and more forceful because it is seen as a danger cue. This can be counterproductive for both motor and mental tasks—research has shown that athletes competing against someone wearing red are more likely to lose, and students who are exposed to red before an exam perform worse. So while red is typically an exciting color, whether that excitement is a positive or negative thing likely depends on who you are and what the context is.

Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, also emphasizes that there are subtleties to colors that can change their meaning to us.

“We have all experienced mood changes because of the color of a room or walking outside on a sunny day,” she explains. “The challenge is to understand the nuances of color, its intensity and value of color—its lightness or darkness. Rather than putting judgment on different colors, we need to understand each color family. My mantra and message is that learning about color is a never-ending exercise, we are constantly experimenting and building on what we already know instinctively about color.”

Chromatic Spaces

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When it comes to color, former fashion rules have been replaced with more flexible guidelines. | Photo by Paolo Bona/Shutterstock

Although color does affect our moods, it is a critical design element for other reasons, especially in commercial spaces, says Karen Collins, president of the International Association of Color Consultants/Designers North America (IACC-NA) and an interior designer at JBA Architects. “Color can be instrumental for way-finding by applying it on flooring or walls—think about hospital floors that may have a different colored stripe for different departments,” she says, “It can serve as a universal language in signage. Think of an octagon-shaped board painted red—without any words, you know that means ‘Stop.’ And bright yellow railing around dangerous equipment will alert you to be cautious.”

When it comes to both commercial and residential spaces, Collins says she’s seeing a lot of white lately. “There are hundreds of photos online showing rooms with white floors, white walls, white furniture and the occasional contrasting accent piece all in one room,” she says. “The light reflecting off of this color is very harsh for the eyes, especially in a space where considerable time is spent. In commercial [design] I am seeing white work surfaces, white walls, dark floors and then high-saturated accent colors mixed throughout. The eye will get very fatigued very quickly from adjusting to the contrasts of colors that absorb all light (dark colors) and the those that reflect [a] high percentage of light (LRV—light reflectance value). This can lead to headaches and even mood swings.”

Rather than following trends, Collins says members of the IACC-NA will work with clients to find colors that fulfill the end goal of the space and its use.

This approach is also key to designing personal environments. At home, Woolf says it’s important to consider the function of the room and how color will affect one’s energy in the space.

“This is very personal but it’s important to tune the intensity of a color to a specific individual,” she explains. “Lively, energetic colors can be used in rooms like kitchens and dining rooms because they support conviviality. However, if you were a professional chef, coming home to a kitchen with calming colors might be more appropriate. Bedrooms are usually a place to rest and recuperate from life, so as a rule we choose calming colors, for example soft blues, greens or neutrals. [But] for a person who needs a little extra help waking up in the morning, a more energetic color like a very soft orange would be appropriate.”

Stylish Shades

One of the most fascinating things to happen in fashion in recent years is the conglomeration of colors being used together, according to Eiseman. Rather than color rules, she says we are now seeing color guidelines.

“Pink and red was a no-no when I was growing up and yet today monochromatic color combinations can be very effective,” she says. “You can start with wines and berries and even slide down to softer pinks. As far as fashion is concerned, the message is coming across loud and clear. It’s OK to mix patterns and color. The older rules don’t serve the taste levels of younger generations. I agree with the freedom in color. You can use guidelines, but they don’t need to be so restrictive in their use.”

Colors in fashion are also related to changes in the marketplace. Eiseman says that in recent years Americans have moved away from a “throwaway culture,” with items and colors becoming more pervasive through multiple seasons. “We are seeing colors lasting longer in the marketplace,” she says. “Yellow, green chartreuse, orange and purple used to be trend-driven. We’re not seeing that any longer—they stay in fashion for a longer period of time.” In addition to increasing the longevity of your investment, she says that one of the biggest advantages is that it allows people to create interesting color combinations since they have more to choose from.

Rather than seeing dramatic changes outright, Eiseman says we are seeing changes in shades or color combinations. She expects that many colors trending in fall 2016 will continue into spring 2017, including airy blues, neutral taupes and greys, teal and yellow-greens, and colors in the orange family, especially complex pinky oranges.

Colorful Commerce

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Beyond simple visual appeal, different shades are used in commercial and professional spaces to incite emotion and even provide direction.

The use of color is also critical in branding and marketing. Labrecque’s research looked at three attributes of color, including hue (the color), saturation (the intensity of the color) and value (how light or dark it is), and found that all three were important to communicating brand personality. “Brand personality is a set of human characteristics that are attributed to a brand name,” she says. “These traits are similar to human personality traits and allow the consumer to better relate with the brand. Similar to the Big Five personality traits for people, there are five main dimensions of brand personality that are commonly referred to—sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication and ruggedness.”

In branding, while red tends to signal excitement, blue conveys competence, white and pink communicate sincerity; purple, pink and black signal sophistication; and brown signifies ruggedness.

“My findings are a good starting point, but brands should test different colors as there can be many attributes that communicate brand personality; color is just one,” Labrecque says.

In addition to steering our shopping selections and influencing how we feel in our home and work environments, colors can communicate. For most, it’s not even a conscious recognition—we stop for red, use caution with yellow and go with green. So while color associations vary among industries and individuals, one thing is certain: Hues have an incredibly strong impact on how everyone perceives, and therefore experiences, the world. 

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