On a recent branding project, a client asked if we knew of any scientific studies on the meaning or perception of color. Momentarily silenced by the brilliance of the question, and kicking myself that I hadn’t thought to ask this question myself, I said
“No” and immediately began to search.
What I quickly learned is that the “science” of color theory, or color psychology, is an area that has much room left for exploration. Color is everywhere: fashion, advertising, food packaging, cars, décor, sports team colors, just to name a few. Understanding
people’s perceptions of it is complex, confusing and quite challenging.
In the West people wear black for mourning, while in the East (China in particular), white is the color of mourning. In many informal surveys, the majority of people name
blue as their favorite color. It’s claimed that red and orange make you hungry because they are “warm” colors and thus stimulate the appetite (ever notice the
main colors used by fast food restaurants?).
There is a study on how wearing red jerseys seemingly resulted in a sports team winning more than when they wore blue ones. You can read about it at
Der Spiegel and National Geographic. In the sports jersey study, one theory suggests that red intimidates the opposing team because it’s a signal of strength (based on male strutting in the animal kingdom). Another suggests that is stimulates the winning team. But this
doesn’t explain why the “donate” button on so many websites is red. We suspect that organizations have done some A/B testing and determined that red got better results than the competing color—perhaps because it captures attention.
But, is red really red? Scientists from Arizona State University published a study on the
differences in how men and women see the color red in the American Journal of Human Genetics. The study shows that while men tend to see “just red,” women see a much wider range of
colors, such as burgundy, tomato and crimson. There is a gene that lets us see the color red, and women happen to have two copies of it sitting on the X chromosome. Men have just one copy. So I have to wonder how the sports jersey would fare with female teams.
A man named Faber Birren appears to be the father of Color Psychology. Trained at the Chicago Art Institute, he first tried to become a landscape painter but realized he didn’t have a talent for it. Instead he became an industrial color consultant, keeping
diligent records on color trends for items such as paints, furnishings, and plastics. He wrote
numerous articles and books on subjects such as how color can reduce fatigue, heal or even reveal information about personalities. And he had a large influence on the development of factory and other workplace environments.
The most scientific source I found regarding a comprehensive approach to understanding color perception was
a formal academic research project by a man named Joe Hallock, who is currently a user experience designer with Microsoft. His project consists of a detailed and properly controlled
survey of 232 people across 22 different countries, and is full of pie charts and graphs that clearly show trends.
It identifies differences in how men and women perceive color (men tend to dislike purple), how our color preferences change as we age, how colors relate to certain concepts (such as bravery), and how color may relate to a person’s online activities (such
as shopping, making a donation or sharing). He was unable to attract enough people to obtain meaningful information about cultural differences—though that had been a primary goal at the beginning. Nevertheless, what he did learn is fascinating, and incredibly
useful to the practice of branding and marketing.
It’s important to understand that the perception of color may vary widely based on multiple factors: age, gender, cultural identity, time of day, type of lighting, scale, environment in which it is displayed, structure and function of the individual eyeball/brain
connection and more.
For example, in Hallock’s study, he discovered that purple is one of men’s least favorite colors, but it’s also a color they associate with the concepts of bravery and courage. This is interesting in that it underscores the subjective nature of color perception.
Here, it seems as if the generic idea of the color “purple” is not liked by most men, but the association of a Purple Heart medal with bravery and courage puts the color into a different context, and changes their response to it.
To successfully use any information about how people perceive color we must first have a strong understanding of the audience demographic, combined with knowledge of the specific goals of the client.
Armed with that information, we might then begin to have an idea of the best color choices for a logo for a nonprofit organization that supports war veterans, or for a for-profit organization that supports the human resources departments of multimillion-dollar
companies. We might better know what color to make the “donate” button on a home page, or the general color scheme for a business card.
In 2002, Marcy launched WireMedia to provide strategic communications to organizations that work to improve lives, communities, and environments. Marcy’s expertise is in communications strategies, creative concepts, and technical solutions. With a strong
background in both design and technology, her deep set of skills includes online campaign strategy and concepts, website creative and technical planning, ad campaign strategy and concepts, and brand strategy and development. Over the past decade, work under
her creative direction has won numerous Pollie Awards from the American Association of Political Consultants. And a logo design under her creative direction was selected to appear in the 2011 Typography Annual from Communications Arts magazine. Marcy designed
the course syllabus and taught website design & technology courses for over seven years at Parsons School of Design and at the New School Online University. An active member of the National Association of Women Business Owners – Los Angeles, she currently
serves on the communications and education committees. Marcy holds a Master of Fine Arts in design and technology from Parsons The New School for Design and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Los
Angeles, CA and enjoys practicing taekwondo, painting, and wine tasting.
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