Color, Context, Culture and Design

“What is color?” Seems like a fairly obvious question, but it’s not as simple as it appears. In a world filled with company identities, brochures, signs, and web sites, it is remarkable how few businesses ask themselves, “Why do we use this color and what does it mean around the globe?” Clients often have specific colors in mind for any given project. These choices are often based on their answer to the “favorite color” question (or it’s driven by brand standards that make little sense). However, when choosing a color, the more better question is, “What message does this color communicate?”

Color is the by-product of the spectrum of light, as it is reflected or absorbed, as received by the human eye and processed by the brain. It is a cognitive reaction to stimuli.  Competing with the basic biology of the human brain is the cultural understanding of color, which goes well beyond national preferences or association (e.g. white being associated with death in Japan). It helps articulate how the world is understood in its entirety.

First, the mechanics. The world is filled with light. As every school child learns, if you experiment with passing light through a prism, a spectrum will be produced in the form of a rainbow. The prism separates the light into the wavelengths of light the human eye is capable of seeing. Hence, color. These colors are present in all light that is around you. When this color filled light strikes an object, most of the spectrum is absorbed by the object. However, a fraction of the light will bounce off the object, like a sound wave echoing off a canyon wall. This reflected wavelength of light enters your eyes and your brain interprets and labels it a certain color.

The sensations of color are not just physical phenomena, but they are also shaped by our perception — by the mechanics of vision and the way our brains process information. What we see of an object depends upon the object, but also the lighting and, more importantly, our perception.

The appealing sensation of complimentary colors (like red and green) does not originate physically from the actions of light on our eyes, but perceptually from the actions of our internal visual information system.  How we interpret the actions of light on a surface is what determines whether a color looks “good” for any particular use, not the actual color itself. We are predisposed to feeling certain emotional responses to certain colors, and these feeling can be mapped out mathematically, not unlike the scales in music that are universally appealing. And this is where choosing a color scheme, be if for advertising collateral, a logo or a store layout gets tricky because perception is part biology and part culture.

Color has cultural meaning that goes well beyond something as simple as green being a universal associated with cultivation, plants and fertility.  Color underscores how we interpret the world and can shift depending on context. For example, the colors of the dress and body painting of different nations is another aspect of the anthropology of color. Although the aesthetics of color theory seems universal, what is pleasing in color may vary from one culture to another. For example, the rules for color display in the West Suk of Kenya use a system of very specific sequences of color that are considered beautiful, conforming to a concept, known as “pachigh.”

Among the Suk there is a conventional concept of beauty of color as applied to beads. While all colors or pigments are pretty, so long as they’re not too faded, colored beads arranged in a pattern are beautiful. But there are preferences which exclude various arrangements. Some colors are preferred, such as blue, but any color may be strung out in a solid line and be contrasted with any other solid colored string and called pretty. But, when differently colored beads are put together on the same string, an alternation of blue and white or of red and white is acceptable, while alternate red and yellow, red and blue, or yellow and white is not considered pretty, no matter what pattern they form. The reason is because the latter groupings have a reduced contrast between the colors, and have become like the drab colors of goats and sheep, considered to be boring. White and yellow, for example, provide little tone contrast whereas blue and white are considered pretty. This is pachigh.

Choosing a color to communicate a message requires research and knowledge of the message as well as the audience. But equally as important is an understanding into the effects of color on the human psyche. This insight will add depth and meaning to any message, and any business concerned with their image would do well to toss aside their favorite and instead choose the right color for the right job.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a very interesting article because it highlights the importance and deep effect of color not just on the human psyche but also as a cultural communicator. A better understanding of the effects and implications of color would certainly enrich any message.

    This article also reminds me of a topic I research, and found very difficult to grasp, last year; natural photonics also known as structural color [] ). Iridescence,as in butterflies and moths is one example of structural color.

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