What shapes our response to colour? Simon Sholl looks at the obvious – instinct and culture – and the less obvious but increasing effects of the brand. Simon Sholl is strategic planning manager at Design Bridge

We all know that colour is important to our lives, and as designers we’re aware of how powerful and persuasive it is to us and our audience. Its imagery pervades our language and adds extra significance to what we say. We talk of shades of meaning; we hear “the blues”. And a central role for designers is to harness the power of colour and use it to realise our visions.

For many years there has been debate about people and colour. Do individuals see it in the same ways? Do different cultures give red, say, different meanings and associations? Could colour be a universal language – something that unites and influences everyone around the world? The answer, if there is one, is of vast relevance to us – it would change our approach to design forever. Here’s one view.

Colour is the fastest route to recognition. We all love visual stimuli. If we see something interesting, we blink less often. If something attracts us, our pupils dilate. Colour is the fastest, most direct component of vision. It needs no interpretation, like images or words. We notice a colour change on a cola can much faster than a text change, as exemplified by Pepsi, which broke out of the red category language of colas.

We use colour to categorise what we see.

Primary colours are easier to remember and categorise. We can all remember the primary yellow and red contrast of McDonald’s, or the red and green traffic light codes.

Under the “top layer” of colour categorisation is the “cultural layer”. Here, religious, political, climatic and geographic backgrounds create different sets of associations with particular colours, and all designers will be familiar with some of them. For example, green symbolises Islam as well as ecological awareness. In the land of the white wedding, white symbolises youth, purity and hope. In the Far East it means death, because bloodless corpses are white. Red – the colour of patriotism to US citizens – represents Communism to the Chinese. But it also means “Stop – Danger”. When China introduced ideologically correct traffic lights (red for go, green for stop) the entire country ground to a halt. And we all know that Eskimos have 100 words for snow. But how many of us know that the Kalihari tribes in southern Africa have many words for brown, but none for blue?

Even within one culture, age can make a difference. In some associative experiments in the US, junior college students found blue to mean sadness, but 3rd-graders thought of it as happy.

So knowing that colour associations vary hugely – and knowing what those associations are – is an essential tool to the designer. Some time ago, Design Bridge made a presentation in Jakarta where the colours used on concept packaging for a herbal drink turned out to be the colours of a local reactionary political party – it was blown out immediately!

So is there a universal psychology of colour? There have been many attempts to find universal meaning in colour, beneath the cultural layer. Could red always mean blood, violence and rage; blue equal sky, sea and peace; black signify night, putrefaction and death?

In the Forties, Max Lscher, inventor of the Lscher Colour Test, believed that our primitive mammalian brains – the mid-brain that we all still carry with us – would provide an instinctive, identical response, neither conscious nor culturally-learned, to certain colours. He believed that the four “psychological primaries” – red, blue, green and yellow – represent four different “somatic states” of activity, calm, tenacity and emotional release.

As designers, the problem with Lscher’s reasoning is that seeing colours independent of objects, as in his colour card test, is rare. We react to coloured things in the context in which we see them. Our reactions to the same shade of grey-green, for instance, will be very different if we encounter it on a car or on a pork chop.

More recently than Lscher, researchers such as Berlin & Kay have found that, in some 90 primitive languages with few colour words, the third most common colour word (after black and white) was always red, followed by green or yellow, then blue. The remarkable consistency of their findings does indicate some universal hierarchy of colour significance.

But, for designers, the same problem arises as with Lscher – our objects are always seen in context. Product shape, role and function; cultural, climatic and religious background; the competitive context in which, for instance, a pack operates – all these will swamp any universal colour associations.

Are there rules to guide packaging designers? There are some guiding principles, most of which we already follow. While we recognise that they vary widely depending on, for example, product category and geographical factors, generally, these principles are based on the colour categorisation process discussed earlier, rather than on any universal colour language.

In the western world we’ve constructed design conventions, with colours very often used as the principal vehicle. For instance, colour can signal product category: nearly all “brown goods” are signalled by the colour black. It can signal product variants: in the paint market, silk finishes tend to be signalled by green, matt finishes by blue (even, confusingly, in white paint); and we all interpret turquoise on the soup fixture as Heinz Baked Beans. Gold on the instant coffee fixture signals quality, while, on the tea fixture, the quality signal is black. To the British, quality in chocolate is the purple of Cadbury’s, while in Germany and Austria, it is the mauve of Milka. In other words, a new system of colour association has grown up, driven by design and branding.

Because above all, colour – especially primary colour – means brands. Big brands. International brands. And as big brands become global, they become the new “universal colour language”. Red has come to mean – to the tribesman as well as the tourist – the refreshment values of Coca-Cola rather than danger or rage, while yellow-and-black symbolises not “radiant release” and death, but consistently successful photography courtesy of Kodak.

Brands become global – and their colours become consistent symbols – when they create or transform markets and dominate them via consistent marketing support, product values, emotional attributes and associated physical equities. It is power and consistency of colour and other equities – and the extent to which products provide universal appeal (trainers and Coke do, sandals and black pudding don’t) – rather than coincidental appropriateness to each geographical market, that creates harmonised superbrands.

Colour is vital to the branding and positioning task – but we can’t make absolute rules for its use. It must work in the context of the brand, the local market, the category, the consumer, and the conditions of display and use.

Further reading:

The Color Compendium, Hope & Walch

(Van Nostrand Reinhold NY)

Designing with Colour, ed. Berry & Martin (Batsford)

Senses and Sensibilities, Jillyn Smith (Wiley)

Mosaics of Meaning: Anthropology & Marketing, Judie Lannon (Journal of Brand Management vol.2 no.3 Dec 1994)

Principles of Visual Perception, Carolyn Bloomer (The Herbert Press)

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