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7 Ways We Respond To Color

This is the first in a series of articles I am writing about color theory. If you read to the end, you’ll find an easy exercise which will help build your color awareness.

One of the first responses we have to anything we see is a color response. In fact, color is the first thing we notice about something. (The shape of the thing is the second). We use color to identify and categorize. We make buying decisions based on color. We wear the colors of our memberships. For example, Harley Davidson owners are most often garbed in a uniform of a black vest and blue jeans, and United States Marines are proud to wear their iconic dress blues.

For visual communicators, color response — also known as color psychology — is a primary design choice. On the basis of color alone a product or brand can be accepted or rejected in the marketplace. Although fundamental color theory is generally taught by means of digital and pigment color mixing, it is color psychology that becomes a primary issue for effectively communicating in graphics, photography and media. Color used in package design can change the perceived value of what’s inside. Color can cause a product to stand out from its competitors on store shelves. Color has the ability to change our mood.

Color is perhaps the most complex element of design. It is so much so that it is regularly given its own separate course alongside design theory in a design school curriculum. Color involves not just visual perception, but psychobiological aspects, physics, cultural and symbolic uses, and emotional responses. Color choices are crucial to successful visual messaging and brand influence.

Humans respond to color as individuals and as a group. We respond based on our experience and our physiology. It’s important to note that the mere act of seeing is a color thing. It is also important to note that color is a perception caused by light interacting with our eyes and does not actually exist on any surface. Color resides in the brain, and the doorway is the retina in the eye. Without light, we cannot see color.

Color psychology involves a variety of factors. There are 7 different ways we respond to color, and our responses are concurrent:

The Inherited Response

This is a collective response common to all people. We have physiological responses to hues. For example, red excites the pituitary, and blue calms it. Yellow creates anxiety and is difficult to process visually.

The Learned Response

This is an individual response. People and events in your life cause you to develop likes and dislikes for certain colors. Personal color preferences are most often based on one’s past experiences with colors. We often ask what someone’s favorite color is. If we dig into the reasons for it, we’ll find it’s due to an experience or a person they encountered somewhere along the way.

The Geographic Response

Colors native to a geographic environment may cause a greater attraction for them, or a greater dislike for them. The color of the Pacific Northwest is vastly different from the colors found in the southwestern deserts. Geographic color palettes are used in graphic and interior design. The geographic response is an individual response.

The Regional Response

This response deals with cultural or community differences. It accounts for the differences in East Coast and West Coast fashion preferences in the USA, and for the various color symbolisms found culture to culture. Black, for instance, is a color of authority and of mourning in Western culture, while white is used for mourning in certain Eastern cultures.

We can also extend the regional response idea to category brand colors. We don’t see light blue or pink used to brand and market coffee products, but they are often used for teas. We won’t find cola products packaged in green and yellow cans. Colas use palettes with variations of red, blue, black, gray (silver) and white.

The Climate Response

Compensation for temperature is possible through the use of color. Cool colors will cause us to feel cooler physically. Bright colors, along with corrected lighting, can help reduce the effects of SADD. Dark roofs absorb more light energy (heat) than light roofs. When we wear light colored clothing on a hot day we will not feel as hot because the light color reflects more light energy.

The Income Response

All economic groups use color to denote status. Blacks, dark browns and grays are upscale, while tans and brighter, lighter colors are lower end. Do you want to appear affordable? Use saturated yellow and orange.

The Sophistication Response

A person’s life experience, education, and maturity all affect color responses and preferences. Highly educated, well-traveled people will appreciate color schemes differently than  those with less experience.

Three more things to note about color response.

Response varies with light quality. There is no color without light. Light quality is cool (CFL and fluorescent tubes), warm (incandescent) or balanced (LEDs). The quality of light will cause you to favor a color in one situation and dislike it in another.

Response varies with age.  What was your favorite color as a child may not be your favorite currently.  Our color preferences will change as we grow and gain life experience.

Colors have positive and negative responses. The same color will be accepted in one situation and rejected in another. To use yellow as an example, it is considered a cheerful color, but also causes anxiety.

Your Turn

Here is a little exercise for you. The next time you are in your grocery store, take a look at how color is used in breakfast cereal packaging. What types of colors are used on cereals for kids, and what color schemes dominate adult cereal packaging? Come back and share your observations in the comments below.

Further Reading

A Color Perception Tutorial

Wagner Color Response Report

Color and Meaning

X-Rite Color Vision Test

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.

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