Color, perception and emotion: Why your choices of color matter
Color often goes under the radar in our day-to-day lives. Wherever you are now, take a look around and note all the vibrant, contrasting, natural and artificial colors which surround you. All of these, whether consciously or subconsciously, are playing into your experience of being in this space. Due to color’s ubiquity understanding the profound effect it has on our psyche is hugely important in the modern world, whether you are decorating a space, displaying/purchasing artworks, designing, marketing or creating a brand identity. And given the current shifting climate, due to the global pandemic, we are all spending far more time in singular, isolated workspaces which benefit hugely from a coherent, carefully selected color palette in order to maximize our mood and efficiency.
Foundations; Color Theory
Although often mistaken as one entity, color theory and color psychology approach two sides of the same coin. Color theory, first referenced by Italian artist Leon Battista Alberti in 1435, describes a collection of rules and guidelines regarding the use of color. This deals with three key various facets of color: value (its brightness), Chroma (saturation, purity, strength and intensity) and hue (the color itself). Color theory also seeks to define colors’ relationship to each other. Take, for example, the color wheel which was conceived and developed in the 1700s and 1800s by some of its most foremost thinkers. Soon the color wheel as we know it emerged, along with the primary colors of red, green and blue, which could utilize additive mixing to achieve every color humans, can perceive. Subtractive mixing, using cyan, magenta and yellow as its primaries, came about with color printing, supplementing these colors with black ink to create the entire spectrum.
Looking closer at the color wheel we are privy to many different relationships. The aforementioned primary colors are followed by secondary, tertiary and quaternary colors formed by mixing each of the previous level’s colors.
More usefully, if we split the color wheel in half we find what are known as warm and cool colors on either side. This begins the idea of complimentary colors which are colors which sit directly opposite one another on the color wheel, producing a pleasing and stimulating contrast when paired. The contrast provided by complimentary colors is so pleasing due to their relationship with the visible spectrum. As two complimentary colors will cover contrasting frequencies of visible light and as different frequencies stimulate different photoreceptors, when paired, complimentary colors end up stimulating a range of our different photoreceptors.
In a similar vein, triadic colors can be found by forming an equilateral on the color wheel. And similar relationships can be found by continuing to dissect the wheel with regular shapes. But as more and more colors are selected, even if they are complimentary, an image, room or design can quickly become too intense. As such, it remains a rule of thumb to allow one triadic color to dominate, while the others act as simple accents.
On the topic of contrasting colors, it is valuable to determine how these can actually be found. It’s a common misconception that difference in hue and value will always provide contrast, but as we have established, color contrast relies on the stimulation of different photoreceptors. The simplest way to test if two colors contrast is to, interestingly, turn them into gray scale as when color is removed, they will still provide a strong gray scale contrast.
Color psychology is the study of, mainly, hues as a determinant of behavior, exploring how the colors which surround us effect our day-to-day living. This ranges from researching mood and performance to behavior avoidance. Although some of color psychology’s effects can be found to be universal across humans, the vast majority are seen as individual deeply rooted in personal experience or cultural reinforcement. We need look no further than the boldest color, red, to see this in play with Westerners associating it with power, danger or anger, while the Chinese associate vibrant red with luck, joy, happiness and good fortune.
Unfortunately, in recent years color psychology is a phrase that has been co-opted by pseudoscience articles which overemphasize color’s power to influence human thought, particularly for marketing purposes. This has meant that the limited amount of work dedicated to the field in contemporary psychology has been drowned out in the collective conscious by suppositions and popular assertions related to color. Which, of course, has lead color psychology’s somewhat bad reputation within the scientific community.
That said, let us take a look at some of these popular associations and put them in direct conversation with some scientific evidence, to see if our intuitive sense of color, and its effects, holds true.
The Effects of Specific Colors
Seeing as we have perceived color for millennia, cultural associations to color run extremely deep. Let’s explore a selection of these, and what their use will mean for a space or artwork.
As we already discussed, Red is a hugely bold color which can engender feelings of danger, fear and power or luck, joy, happiness and wealth depending where you’re from. Regardless of its cultural implication, though, red’s bold vibrancy demands attention and produces energizing responses.
In such a way red will always provide a strong focal centerpiece, sure to evoke strong reactions from onlookers.
Although these popular definitions are not without their merits, most psychological research into red has been dedicated to performance-based tasks. It has been found that the presence of red causes individuals to react with greater speed and force, implicating its importance in athletics. However, other research, interestingly by the same team, has found that red also impairs performance on achievement tasks potentially due to its associations with danger. In their study this manifested as avoidance motivation and faster, but more inaccurate, reactions again aligning with the popular definitions of red in the western world.
Intrinsically tied to summer light, yellow is also an extremely bright, bold and intense color. In the west, it is most often associated with cheery warmth, friendliness and fun.
Interestingly yellow is also associated with appetite stimulation, explaining why restaurants like McDonald’s employ the color so boldly.
As such, yellow is often employed in design to lift spirits, keeping things light, bright and summery.
Nestled between red and yellow, orange provides a perfect combination of the two. Combining the bold dynamism of red with the friendly energy of yellow makes it a warm, compassionate color.
Also associated with the sun, but more commonly a gorgeously melancholic sunset, orange is a bold, bright mid-ground between its two strongly emotive neighbors.
It also presents the clear idea that colors on the color wheel are intrinsically linked to their neighbors through their meaning, associations and presence in nature.
The color of nature, of course, is deeply rooted in the ideas of cleanliness, balance and harmony reflecting the ideas of life, rest, growth and the natural world. Historically, actors used to find themselves resting in “green rooms” which were decorated with cool greens as it was believed to calm their nerves.
Although traditionally obtaining these values, in the 21st century different greens denote countless contradictory things; from luminous green’s association with toxicity to deep, artificial greens reflecting the glow of neon cityscapes.
As such it becomes clear that lumping the vast quantity of a singular named color into one set of associations results in a constricted concept of color’s potential.
Another primary color ripe with variable and contradictory associations, blue is associated with that which is calm and reliable, but is also deeply associated with sadness and despair. Unlike the warmer colors discussed, of red, yellow and orange, blue, being cooler, is more associated with mental states rather than physical reactions. And, perhaps due to its attested ability to produce calm serenity, blue is reportedly the world’s favorite color—pretty much across the board.
Interestingly, again, this cultural intuition towards blue as a calming force has been supported by scientific evidence. Resulting in blue lights being rolled out into public spaced in an attempt to curb locational crime and suicides. One such example was observed in the late 2000s when a number of Japanese railway companies installed lamps above train platforms in an attempt to curb suicides.
The success of this was widely reported as reducing suicides by 84%. Unfortunately, taking a look at the data shows that this number is unlikely, as various variables, such as the lights not being active during the day, were not taken into account. Nevertheless, similar results have been reported in curbing crime in cities such as Glasgow. Thus, the effect of blue on calming the nerves is undoubtedly significant.
As such, much like green, blue provides an air of calm, making it a great choice for design, decoration or artworks intended for quiet spaces.
The underappreciated brown is a staple base to many environments both natural and artificial. Due to its intrinsic association with trees and earth, it is emotively grounded in ideas of calm nature, strength, security, protection and durability.
While remaining relatively neutral and soft, brown provides a strong base for design, allowing for a secure foundation on which bolder more expressive colors can be placed. Furthermore, complimenting itself well with blues and greens, similar to its occurrence in nature, brown is undoubtedly the perfect warm color to compliment calm and restorative hues.
Black and White
Of course, no discussion of color is complete without mentioning the polar opposites of black and white.
Bold, dark, black is associated with sophistication, seriousness and intensity while also playing off concepts of evil, mystery, depression and death. Due to its intensity and incredible potential for contrast, black is often used quite sparingly in design and art. But when it is wielded intently by the correct hands, it can become a hugely powerful force.
White, on the other hand, contrasts black in almost every respect. Being associated with purity, cleanliness and peace, while providing an air of simplicity whenever it is employed. However, it is easy to forget that pure white itself is as strong and bold a color as black, so in its purest form it should also be used with real intent to draw the most out of its evocative and ethereal associations.
With a number of these fundamental associations discussed it is clear that popular information surrounding color often does have some grounding in its real-world effects. However, it remains difficult to determine the causal relationship, whether the color itself inherently holds values or if it is simply the experiential/cultural weight we learn to place on the color.
Furthermore, due to the overarching ambiguity surrounding the legitimacy of much of the color psychology we are privy to, it is important to take this information with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, equipped with an understanding of color theory and a basis is popular color ‘psychology’ we can quickly and easily begin to deploy colors with intent—creating spaces, artworks and design which guide onlookers’ emotions through an evocative use of color.
 Elliot AJ, Aarts H. Perception of the color red enhances the force and velocity of motor output. Emotion. 2011;11(2):445-9. doi:10.1037/a0022599
 Elliot AJ, Color and Psychological Functioning: The Effect of Red on Performance Attainment. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2007:136(1) 154-168