The colour code

People have an emotional response to colour. But how do you produce the desired effect when the whole spectrum is at your disposal?

Few would argue that colour is one of the strongest – and cheapest – tools in design. Used judiciously, it can delight the eye, aid communication, boost design’s commercial effectiveness, and even, it is increasingly believed, help to heal.

Yet for most designers, apart from the odd lecture on colour theory back at college, it’s all down to intuition. These home-grown skills are set to be tested as design, in the age of the multi-coloured iMac and the Dyson, becomes more driven by innovative colours and textures and more susceptible to the colour trends that are so central to the fashion industry.

So are designers equipped to rise to the challenge? According to colour psychologist Angela Wright, who advises industry on colour and has worked with the Chartered Society of Designers and the Royal Institute of British Architects, many of the designers she works with are not confident about how to use colour in their work. ‘Because it’s such an instinct, so fundamental, we’ve lost sight of it on a conscious level… 99 per cent of the time the colours we choose for ourself are an expression of our personality and what we’re feeling at the time, which is fine but it can create problems if you bring it to bear on a design project,’ she says.

Designers are aware of this, so they can often play too safe, she adds. Much of our colour response is innate – black, associated with night, is gloomy; red, like blood, spells danger and excitement; and green, with its links to fertility and well-being, is calming. Wright has developed a scientific rationale which uses the four psychological primary colours (blue, red, yellow, green – see box) and the universal classification of all people into four personalities, each with their accompanying tonal families.

‘It is essential to establish which colour group, or psychological colour family, best represents the desired objectives of the brief. Thus a framework is created within which designers can work freely, secure in the knowledge that the colour scheme will fulfil its function,’ she says, insisting that this works across global brands by expressing what the brand must communicate on a universal colour palette.

For Wright, colour theory is about a combination of subtlety and hue. She thinks there are universally recognised pleasing colour combinations rather than colours: ‘There’s no such thing as a good colour or a bad colour. Every colour has the potential for a positive reaction. It’s a question of colour combination,’ she says.

Nonetheless, cultural differences affect responses to colour – as Apple found with their brightly coloured iMacs. The tangerine model sold better in the Far East due, Apple believes, to familiarity with bright colours and the association with saffron. Indigo blue and graphite remain the most popular worldwide.

While most designers rely on instinct to determine their colour choice, there are some who pay particular attention to the psychological factors behind their choice. Branding and design consultancy Cobalt has recently been using the expertise of University College London’s psychology department on graphic and environmental projects for two clients in the IT sector.

‘It’s [about] taking the human behavioural aspects of psychology and applying them to brands,’ says strategic director Iain Ellwood, who believes that colour, shown in research to be more memorable than shape or name, is a very underrated behavioural tool.

‘Most [design] consultancies use mood-boards to grasp the personality, but we thought that was too superficial. If you really want to affect human behaviour you have to do it seriously,’ Ellwood explains.

Working with UCL, Cobalt uses the Myers-Briggs personality test (a system of personality evaluation based on the psychological theories of psychologist Carl Jung) to define the nature of the client and its brand, then match the findings to suitable colour combinations to give the desired effect.

‘It helps to take the discussion to something other than the subjective,’ says Ellwood, ‘because it’s grounded in a psychological approach. The structured approach is more credible and reduces the risk.’

Effective colour use can mean far more than boosted sales or lower staff turnover – it can also help to heal. While it’s common sense that a pleasant environment will aid well-being e e for patients and staff alike, it’s only recently that quantitative as well as qualitative research has been carried out to scientifically measure the effects of the hospital environment on patients.

Richard Mazuch, an associate at architect RTKL, specialises in healthcare projects and is a proponent of the use of colour and good design in general to improve patient well-being. He stresses the need for designers to make informed choices, especially when they design in this context. ‘You can manipulate emotions very easily with colour. You could induce epilepsy through lighting, movement and colour. Orange can bring on appetite and can be quite invigorating, which is good for rehabilitation. Red is thrusting. And it really upsets mental health patients,’ Mazuch says.

There are also diagnostic considerations – yellow should not be specified in baby wards because of the need to detect jaundice symptoms. Likewise blue is unwise for cardiac wards, while green gowns help surgeons’ eyes adjust better in operations.

Colour is only part of the equation, according to the Active Colour Solutions team at design consultancy PSD Associates , which analyses and advises on trends in colour and materials. ‘As well as the combination of colours, the combination of colour with material is another huge factor in application,’ says Marian Kelly, who heads up the team. Apple’s iMac, for example, is not just about alluring colours – it’s also Apple’s use of a new translucent material that created such an impact.

‘Texture is what makes colour come alive,’ says Kelly. Clients need to be more aware than ever about their colours and materials, she says, because of higher consumer expectation for choice.

‘People are expecting to get colour in consumer goods and things that weren’t perceived as fashion items now are. Companies can never stand still – they have to continue to innovate, and colour and materials are crucial to that,’ she says, adding that colour often kicks off the new product development process.

There are no shortage of organisations and publications looking to advise designers and their clients on colour trends. Trends prediction is big business, ruling the fashion industry, where yarn and fabric manufacturers traditionally work up to two years ahead, compared to the car industry, where product development works up to five years ahead.

Fitch, as well as making use of sister company and leading styling agency Peclers Paris, also gives trends synopses up to two years in advance, and has its own London trends observatory.

‘We’re able to see what’s coming up and be able to interpret it to suit our clients’ requirements,’ says Fitch senior consultant Sara O’Rorke. For interiors, this might influence seasonal graphics, such as those in its stores for Oasis. Fitch’s trends observatory’s current predictions for the next few years include intense, luminous colours, multicultural influences, and a trend for nostalgia, with products that make you feel safe and protected, using materials that appear aged.

Further into the future, as the trend continues for endless consumer choice and the personalisation of technology with colour (such as Nokia’s coloured mobile phone cases), there is the prospect of further exciting uses of colour. Lighting is already being used to change room colour, as seen at London’s St Martin’s hotel and Hakkasan restaurant – both illuminated by Arnold Chan at Isometrix, and new materials are being developed that will be able to change colour on demand.

In a world that is becoming more and more colourful, it’s even more important for designers to make the right choices, whether they are trying to please, sell or heal.

Psychology of colour: the four psychological primaries

Red physically stimulating and may be perceived as lively and exciting – or demanding and aggressive.

Blue encourages intellectual activity and will calm the mind or stimulate thought, depending on the intensity of the particular blue being used. It can also be perceived as cold and unfriendly.

Yellow supports optimism and creativity, encouraging confidence and a sense of well-being. Negatively, it can upset those who are emotionally fragile, with low self-esteem.

Green is at the centre of the spectrum and requires no adjustment to look at – it is therefore restful. It is also a very reassuring, balanced colour. It can, however, be perceived as too bland and slightly nauseating.

Source: Angela Wright, Colour Affects

Colour consultants

Colour Affects – Run by colour psychologist Angela Wright, Colour Affects both advises corporate clients on colour and offers training courses for architects and designers on the psychology of colour. Wright has developed the Colour Affects system, which she claims enables colour psychology to be applied objectively and rationally across cultural boundaries. Clients include the HM Prison Service and the Londis Group.

Peclers Paris – Part of the Fitch Worldwide group, Peclers Paris is a 65-strong styling agency for product development and design, headed by Dominique Peclers. As well as publishing trend books on colour, trends and materials, Peclers advises corporate clients ranging from the fashion to the automotive industry. Clients include Monoprix and General Electric.

PSD Active Colour Solutions – Richmond-based design consultancy PSD has built up a specialist colour and materials facility which advises external clients, as well as collaborating on in-house projects. The four strong team, made of designers from textiles, materials, interior design and product design backgrounds, offers global colour trend analysis and future trends reports, and devises colour palettes for packaging, branding, interiors and products. Clients include Swatch and business products company Esselte./P>

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