Rainbow warriors

We may think we know about colour, but as Fay Sweet discovers in the first of four features on the subject, the way we use it is dictated by those in the know

There’s no doubt that England could have won the European Championships this summer. The fatal mistake, of course, was in wearing the wrong colour strip for the semi-final. A good, full-blooded, roaring red would have had the Germans running scared and done the trick nicely. Another tip I picked up during the season of football fever was that should you ever find yourself playing against a Chinese team, the best defence is a white kit. To the Chinese eye and mind it’s a funereal colour and apparently makes for considerable discomfiture in the opponent when running headlong into a messy tackle.

Speculation this may be, but colour in any context always excites interest, passion… and some powerful responses. When journalist Angela Neustatter painted the living room of her Georgian house a combination of vibrant turquoise and sand yellow she got hate mail shoved through the letterbox by outraged passers-by. Then there was the story of Ted Braunholtz who went to battle and won the fight against his council which wanted to outlaw his lilac-coloured house. These flamboyant uses of paint might not help a house sale, but since colour is now widely recognised as a vital marketing tool, anyone working in design has to be aware of the power of the spectrum.

This series of four features based around the subject of colour sets out to examine where our ideas for using colour come from, how our preferences are formed and the extent to which cultural influences inform our choices. I’ll also be looking at the question of taste and how vital a role colour plays in our interiors, our clothing and in the packaging and products we buy.

During the past year of researching this complex and fascinating subject, I’ve come across the most unutterable rubbish written on the subject of colour. Naturally where there is big money to be made there will always be charlatans and spook doctors. However, I will attempt to cut through the dubious theories and present some of the most intriguing research work and trends.

In this first edition of the quartet I explore the business of colour prediction – who knows what colour cars we will be driving and clothes we will be wearing in the next century? I also speak to Britain’s leading colour guru Tom Porter on the psychology of colour. In future editions I’ll be examining the use of colour in interior design – and will go in search of who’s responsible for those barmy paint colour names. I’ll take a look at the role of colour in product design – whatever happened to the avocado-coloured bathroom suite? And I’ll take a tour of Britain’s very own Colour Museum. And finally, can you really judge a book by its cover? I’ll be speaking to designers who know which colours make a difference when it comes to selling magazines and books.

Psychology of colour

According to colour guru Tom Porter: “Rules are for people who can’t handle colour.” He is surely right… and long live the rules, I say.

With colour present in our every waking moment, it is astounding that we know, and understand, so very little about the phenomenon of shade and tone and hue, how to choose it and when to use it. The rules we have evolved are always up for challenge, but in our mass ignorance of handling colour a few accepted guidelines may be a blessed relief on the eye.

Based at the Oxford Brookes University, Tom Porter is a senior lecturer at the school of architecture, a researcher and acknowledged expert in colour. His is the massive task of exploring the cultural, historical, psychological, physiological, emotional, scientific and technological business of the spectrum. Despite possessing the almost certain knowledge that he is unlikely to reach the summit of this particular mountain he has chosen to climb, Porter has the air of one utterly undaunted. As if to remind himself of the enormity of his feat, he regularly drops into the conversation the occasional conundrum. “There are all sorts of stereotypes about red being hot, blue cold and green calm, but then which do we think of as being warmer – a red plastic bag or a blue woollen sock? You see, we really haven’t got very far in our understanding.”

Porter fills in some background. The modern interest in colour was ignited around 150 years ago – at the same time as the boom of interest in archaeology. The Victorian architect, chronicler of pattern and ornament, and colourist Owen Jones was an influential voice in the mid-nineteenth century, when he experimented with ancient colour combinations. He’d travelled widely in Europe and the Middle East and had been fascinated by the polychrome decoration on ancient temples. A disciple of French colour theorist Michel Chevreul, who researched and published the seminal book The Principles of Harmony and Contrasts of Colours, Jones put this new thinking into practice on a number of high-profile buildings, including Paxton’s Crystal Palace. With improving paint technology and keen interest in the bright “new colours”, it wasn’t long before the reds, blues and yellows of the Parthenon (there were no greens) were to be found lavished on an array of objects from industrial buildings to steam trains and agricultural machinery. The Classical bestowed greatness on the Modern.

Porter enjoys extending this story of colour and association to the present day: “It’s intriguing that Richard Rogers says the Pompidou

Centre was inspired by objects like agricultural machinery… and there were have the colours of the Parthenon all over again.”

Along with this explosion of colour came research into our perception of colour. At regular intervals artists and academics such as those involved in the De Stijl group and the Bauhaus have added to the body of understanding and experiment. But the progress in scientific understanding is minute.

It’s well worth being sceptical when looking through the rows of books available on colour. There are plenty of authors who have cashed in on the psychology ticket and the growing interest in colour by pulling together threads of understanding, concocting new theories and dishing up this stuff in quasi-scientific language.

While Porter is intrigued by the stereotypes that proclaim red is warm and blue is cold, he points out that there is more drama of difference in hue between pink and dark red than there is between red and green.

There are, however, uses of colour that we all instantly recognise. “Because colour is very quickly taken into the brain it has become a shorthand for transmitting messages, particularly in corporate identity and packaging. For example, a large number of major companies use blue in their logo – this is a statement of reliability. In the same way, yellow has become associated with travel and holidays through companies like Kodak and Shell; dark green is used in luxury products with labels such as Harrods, Laura Ashley, Marks & Spencer; red is about speed and instant delivery – McDonalds, Coke, Marlboro, Royal Mail; and orange appears on energy products like Duracell and Lucozade.”

But even here, internationally accepted codes are in question – the efficacy of red for a fire engine is being reappraised since tests have shown the cherry red colour once used almost universally on fire fighting appliances is perceived as a muddy brown in poor light. In response to this finding, a number of American fire departments have experimented with a range of different colours to improve the visibility of their engines after dark.

And while colour preferences remain constant, they are open to cultural influences. The discovery of the hole in the ozone layer not only prompted BP to turn its logo a more distinct green, but it was also noted in sections of the motor industry that environment-aware car owners wanted green cars – “both moves would suggest an eagerness to express concern and be seen to be environment-friendly”.

One area of great concern to Porter is the lack of teaching about colour in the UK, particularly for design students. “It is a real sadness to me that even on architecture courses, where discussion on environmental colours should be a big concern, most students only receive a couple of hours teaching on colour for an entire course.” He adds that those architects who have taken a particular interest in colour have produced many intriguing projects – among those to watch he cites John Outram, Michael Graves, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind. “In the past, architects including Le Corbusier have used colour to create the effects of shifting planes, but now we are seeing colour used to dematerialise through people like Outram, and we have seen intriguing uses of metallics by people like Hadid and Rem Koolhaus.”

Context is a big issue for Porter. “A building painted a particular shade of blue will look quite different when seen from different distances. We are only just starting to take this into consideration in design. Colours seen in different lights will change dramatically, as will colours with different textures, or in movement. Our colour experience is so elusive, a great deal more work must be done before we begin to understand what is happening, but meanwhile we should be aware of these dynamics.”

And finally, demonstrating that the more you ask about colour the less you know, Porter has recently embarked on a new line of enquiry about the relationship between colour and form. “There is some research already in existence by people like Kandinsky which has produced results saying that circles are blue, squares are red and triangles are yellow. But I’m interested now in objects such as cars. For example, if a Ferrari in a particular red is demonstrated to be the perfect combination of shape and colour you can easily imagine the ramifications… The applications would be endless and in all areas of industry. It would be one hell of a service to offer product designers.”

Tom Porter’s latest book – The Architect’s Eye – is due to be published by Chapman and Hall early next year.

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