"The Psychology of Color" is an annoyingly popular topic to cover, as even the quickest of interwebz searches can tell you (153,000,000 results in 0.62 seconds. Thanks, Google! 💁).
I mean, look at this quick screen shot – "psychology of color" only ranks below "psychology of addictive behaviors" in Google's search predictor:
I don't know about you, but understanding the psychology of addictive behaviors seems to be of far freaking greater importance than getting the gist of the BS that is the psychology of color.
And feast your eyes on the overwhelming number of infographics on the subject, which target everything from marketing to your clothing, and, weirdly, an "about you" suggestion:
WHY do people like this topic so much?!
It's because "the psychology of color" is such an easy topic to write about – especially when you're faced with the reality of how complex our interactions with color actually are. Teachers teach it because it's easy to teach. And writers write about it because it's easy to put into sentences.
Have fun playing around with "blue means stable and yellow means happy" if you must, but good luck finding much help in that when it comes time to get down to business and put colors to work out in the world, especially in the field of branding.
But what's so complicated about color? Where does color psychology fall short?
Well! Let me tell you! 🙆
Sticking by the dogma of color psychology is complicated by many factors, and I believe those complications fall into two categories:
1. The nature of color itself
2. The nature of our experience of color
By the nature of color itself, I mean the fact that colors themselves are extremely varied. The way tints, shades, hues, and intensity all alter color is a topic all on its own which I will leave for another time. 😉
Today, it's the nature of our experience of color I want to tackle.
There are 4 big ways in which the nature of our experience of color chip away at the assertions of color psychology and those annoying infographics. And I've got them all for you in a nice, organized list.
Ready? Here it goes! 4 ways the psychology of color is total bullshit, brought to you by yours truly:
1. Color is cultural
Color is heavily dependent on tradition, time, and place.
The core concept here is that colors mean different things in different cultures and across different eras. Did you know that in Victorian times blue was for baby girls and pink was for baby boys? Yes. #Gendernorms, amirite?
Today of course that's completely reversed here in America and much of the Western world, where pink represents all things girly and blue is largely for boys as far as entertainment and toy companies' products are concerned.
Even in our immensely globalized world, cultural heritage shapes our understanding of color.
Purple is another great example of color's cultural context:
Color psychology asserts that purple indicates royalty, among other things like creativity and stimulation (really, color psychology? Stimulation?). But purple's connotation of royalty and luxury has its roots in the political and economic heritage of Western traditions, not in some kind of rooted psychological truth:
Way back in ancient times, it was difficult to achieve beautiful purple dye for fabrics. The Phoenicians developed a process to make purple dye using the murex snail, but the dye was costly. Purple cloth became signifier of status in Roman times, making its way all the way up to the emperor's clothes. In fact, Nero made it a crime for anyone else to wear purple – a crime punishable by death. We in the Western traditions inherited this royal and imperial cultural context for purple, but other cultures around the world don't have the same background.
So even if Americans and others living in Western traditions have absorbed purple as a color of status into our learned understanding of color, it's far from a universally established psychological connection. It's a product of our culture.
To press further into the way our cultural understanding shapes color, consider that in more recent decades purple has become an increasingly feminized, especially when used in conjunction with pink. Toys, media entertainment, and even mundane objects like toothbrushes are regularly gendered by color. Companies present us with with cultural assertions that pink and purple are "for girls" while colors like bright blue and red are "for boys" through advertising and packaging. But again, this gendered color split has not always been the case. Rather, the feminization of purple is a product of our time, place, and politics.
Though the contemporary purple of children's toys is a far cry from the ancient cultural heritage of imperial Rome, it demonstrates the impact culture has on our understanding of color all the same.
Okay, so that's strike one for color psychology. Next up is...
2. Color is relative
Relative: considered in relation or in proportion to something else (thanks, Google definitions! 💁). Basically...
Colors communicate different things to us based on their presentation and combination.
Let's go back to that purple example, which I'm really feeling today. Check out these two palettes both based in purple:
First of all, you'll note that though the dominant color in each palette can be described as purple, the colors vary greatly. The first purple leans toward a purple-pink, or a purplish magenta, and features warm undertones. On the other side of the spectrum, the second purple leans toward blue-violet with cool undertones.
And here's where the relative part comes in: the supporting colors have a big impact on our perception of these purples.
In the first palette, the similarly bright, warm tones of the green and yellow (yes, green can have warm undertones!) lend the palette a sense of dynamic energy and playfulness. Remember that color theory basics post from earlier this week? You'll recognize that these three colors almost make a triadic set, which really creates that energy.
So purple = playful, right?
In this situation, we perceive the purple as playful and energetic because of the relationship created between the warm purple and its bright supporting colors.
To explore this a little more, let's look at the second purple palette now.
The second palette combines to create a much more royal or stately palette. This purple leans toward blue with cool undertones and is supported by deep jewel tones – a deep ruby and gold – to form a rich grouping of colors. In comparison to the first palette, these colors are much more subdued and serious.
That's what I'm getting at: color takes on different meanings relative to the colors supporting it.
Plus, do these palettes remind you of anything in particular?
Yep: Barney and Snow White's Evil Queen. There's that contemporary cultural heritage kicking in again!
In each of these examples, our perception of purple is influenced by how the colors appear relative to their supporting colors. The difference in palettes helps set the tone for how we understand each character, though both characters are predominantly purple.
But "the psychology of color" fails to take into consideration the fact that colors' meanings change relative to other colors.
And in the marketing world, this creates big problems when a client comes in with the mindset that they staunchly oppose any blue at all because blue is always calm and they need ENERGY, people! *headache* 😓
Now from relative let's move onto...
3. Color is subjective
Subjective: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. Here's what I'm getting at with this third point:
Color is in the eye of the beholder.
Your audience is the judge of your colors' effectiveness at conveying your message, just as your audience is the final judge of your branding.
There are so many ways our individual experiences shape our perception of color which we need to consider when talking about color. But "color psychology" absolutely skips over these differences!
First off, we need to remember that we don't all see color in the same way:
Our individual perceptions of color are subjective because they differ based on genetics in addition to our personal feelings or tastes.
Keep in mind that up to 8.5%* of the population that has some form of colorblindness. Additionally, many people have difficulty distinguishing the difference between similar shades of the same color when they're placed next to each other. But if you're part of the ~91.5% of people with non-affected vision, you may fail to realize that people with different vision do perceive your palette differently.
Check out this great simulation of how colorblind individuals view hues if you're not quite on the same page here:
Maybe your red actually looks green. Or maybe your green actually looks blue! 😱 But, as usual, color psychology doesn't give a 💩.
We should also consider the impact that our personal histories, rather than just cultural heritage and genetics, can have on our subjective views of color.
Just as certain smells can trigger memories of Thanksgiving at your grandparents' house and certain sounds might trigger memories of the tune your mom would play on the piano in your youth, our memories can be triggered by color under the right circumstances.
For example, I had this blue pillow when I was little – I had it for years and would rub the corner when falling asleep. It was especially comforting to me, and to this day I still associate that particular shade of blue with the cozy security of that pillow. All based on my fond individual memories.
So that blue is comforting to me. And because I have such a strong personal experience with that color I might easily project my perception of that blue onto others.
What I'm not considering in this situation is the fact that someone else might have had a strongly negative experience with that color in the past. They'd likely have a very different perception of that blue's meaning. We wouldn't be seeing eye-to-eye at all.
Once again, color psychology fails to take this aspect of our experience of color into account.
The meaning of color can be subjective for us as individuals. Thanks to our unique genetic makeup, we don't all physically view colors in the same way. And because of our individual experiences of color, we don't all perceive the meaning of color in the same way either. So blue certainly doesn't always mean the calmness, tranquility, or orderliness, despite what color psychology says.
Curse you, color psychology.
And finally, we're onto the fourth reason color psychology is a load of crap:
*This number is actually the percentage of people of Northern European ancestry with red-green color blindness. Why such a limited range of people? Why only one type of colorblindness? I'm not sure, but I would appreciate some more comprehensive data on this subject and you should definitely get on that, National Eye Institute.
4. Color never acts alone
NEVER! ACTS! ALONE! Ever.
Try to imagine a vast field of one color in your mind. No other colors. No other words. No other thoughts. No connotations. No connections. No anything except for that one color.
You can't do it. You seriously CAN'T do it. The human brain does not allow you to do it. It does not work. It simply does not.
This is one of the biggest issues I have with those BS color psychology statements – any time you see color as you go about your day, it's being affected by so. many. other. things. Color is just one element of art that creates the visual "story" you're being "told" through art, design, advertising, clothing, interior decoration, or whatever colorful thing it is you're experiencing.
When color combines with the other elements of art – shape, form, line, value, space or texture [PS: I made you a great chart about those here!] the elements begin to create visual sentences which turn into whole stories. And you can never perceive pure color without any of those other elements coming into play. Color is never completely devoid of any other elements of art!
Take the work of Yves Klein, for example. He covered stacks on stacks on stacks of canvases and other objects with the exact same color (International Klein Blue) to call attention to how we understand the purpose of color.
Did Klein achieve pure color with works like IKB 191?
No freaking way.
There are still other elements at work despite the solid, flat (and beautiful 😍) color Klein used to completely cover this canvas. Think of the shape and form of the canvas, the texture of the surface, the environment the piece is in, what the piece is placed next to, how large the piece is – gah!
We cannot experience color without other elements at play.
I personally might find a nice International Klein Blue-colored pillow quite comforting (remember the pillow story up above?). So IKB = comforting, right?
No no no no no!
Maybe in that situation with that viewer (me) International Klein Blue is comforting. But just imagine walking into a room completely covered in International Klein Blue – the ceilings, walls, floors, furniture – everything that vivid, vibrant blue. That would be a significantly different experience of the color thanks to all the other elements of art at play – again, the shape, texture, form, etc, that you're taking in simultaneously to color. In that situation IKB would be absolutely overwhelming to me and probably any other viewer who tagged along.
This fact flies right in the face of every single color psychology infographic I've had to grudgingly stare at as an art teacher drones on. Oh, the obscured complexity and shallow superficiality of those awful charts!
The blanket statements color psychology embraces totally ignore the fact that all other elements of art significantly impact our understanding of color. Serene, reliable, harmonious? Sure, maybe some blues are those things when all the other elements come together in consensus. But not all blues in all applications meet these statements at all! 😑
To wrap this discussion up, the psychology of color is extremely problematic.
And the problems aren't just in these abstract, written examples. We face the problems which the staunch belief in color psychology creates nearly every week as designers out in the field. When clients come to us with strict adherence to color psychology's musings, we run into problems all up and down and all around.
When you're trying to create a dynamic, polished brand, color is one of your most important tools – and nailing an expressive, satisfying color palette is enormously important. Adhering to the blanket statements of color psychology will get you nowhere when you're trying to really get down to business!
Questions? Protestations? Dissent? Please let us know! We absolutely LOVE color and would love to continue the discussion even further.
Until next time,
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