01 Sep 2016

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Colour (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Few of us can forget the great ‘What colour is this dress debate” that went viral on social media in the early days of 2015.

In case you need a refresher, a Scottish woman bought the dress to wear to a wedding and when a picture of it was posted online, debate over whether it was black and blue, or white and gold erupted and went global.

There were many explanations of why some people saw a black and blue dress as something else in this picture, but to my mind, none of them addresses the fundamental problems with identifying colour and the effect it has on us.

Trying to pin down colour and what it means is nothing new, if you go back when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his Theory of Colours in 1810,  you’d probably find the similar conversations raging.

How you see colour is defined not by what you see but also by the colours around it. If you check the plates below, which comes from Josef Albers groundbreaking work Interactions of Colour (which is still in print after 50 years!) you can see slight differences between the colours as their context changes.

Colour is also largely defined by the light in which it’s viewed. As a designer, I get this all the time. The client will see a series of colours on their screen and complain it is too dull. Then I have to explain how it is probably their screen or the conditions they are viewing it in, such as facing a window.

Computer monitors, TVs and phone screens generally work using the RGB colour model, which relies on projecting various combinations of the colours red, green and blue to represent all the other colours. RGB is highly device dependent, so it’s important to remember that what you see on the screen might not be the same as what others will see.

If tricks of the mind, lighting and technology are not enough to get your head around, there are also trends to take into consideration. I hear a lot of talk about how colours evoke certain feelings and you only have to look at Pantone’s colour of the year (Rose Quartz and Serenity, in case you are wondering) to hear lots of talk of shades that “psychologically fulfil our yearning for reassurance and security”, but it’s hard not to wonder how much these reactions are the result of our conditioning. This is highlighted by an infographic created by Jason LeDuc a few years back to demonstrate that all movie posters were blue and orange.


Whether these connotations are nature or nurture, you need to bear them in mind when choosing your logo or colour scheme. Then you can decide whether using pink for your alternative energy start-up or yellow for your sports car dealership is going to set you apart from the pack or just look jarring.

The last thing to remember is that colour can really help your business but it is a secondary communication tool that is used by designers to inspire consumers and sell products. A good colour scheme is only part of the big picture.

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