The science of colour

A guide to the science behind how we see colours.

The science of colour

Colour awareness

Many people are unaware of what exactly colour is. We see it all around us, we know the differences between colours, we admire colours in art, we love them in nature, and most of us have heard of a medical condition called SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. This condition sees sufferers become depressed in the Winter months through the absence of colour in the landscape.

The science

In order to experience colour, three things must be present: a light source, an object and an observer. When light strikes a coloured object, that object absorbs the wavelengths that exactly match its own atomic structure and reflects the rest, which is what we see. When the reflected light strikes the eye, the different wavelengths do so in different ways. Chemical receptors in the retina convert these wavelengths into electrical impulses that pass to the brain, eventually reaching the hypothalamus, which governs our hormones and endocrine glands. Working with the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus – sometimes called ‘the brain’s brain’ – governs the following functions: water regulation, sleeping and behavioural patterns, the balance of the autonomic nervous system, sexual and reproductive functions, metabolism, appetite and body temperature. It also houses the body’s biological clock.

Colour energy also appears to enter the body via the skin, as well as the eyes, which is known as Dermo-optics. This was discovered in the Soviet Union in the 1960s when a young woman named Rosa Kulesova demonstrated that she could identify colours using colour cards that were identical in size, shape, texture – the same in every way but the colours. This phenomenon has been tested many times since then, and the great majority of people, blind or sighted, can feel the different energies of colours even while wearing blindfold. A percentage of people can actually identify what colour each card is, and very few prove unable to feel the energies.

Applying the science

Marketing is all about creating cues. Remember, scientifically, colour is our principal cue to the composition of anything we encounter. No matter how beautiful your design might be in terms of layout, font, shape, texture, language, etc, the colour will always create the first impression – make sure it does not turn people off.

While there is research supporting the important role of colour in every aspect of life, there has been no monograph on the subject for almost fifty years. This would appear to arise from the commonly held misconception that colour is too subjective to teach and too random to predict, making it difficult to research. The conclusions of many scientific academic research projects have been contradictory, however there is no shortage of general research on the subject, which repeatedly and consistently demonstrates the following:

  1. Bills containing red text are paid 20% faster than if they are just black and white.
  2. Blue is the world’s favourite colour – time and again, when asked what is their favourite colour, most people choose blue.
  3. Red creates overestimation of the temperature by one or two degrees. You can turn the heating down in a red room.
  4. Blue text is easier for those suffering from dyslexia to read.
  5. Colour-coded lists are easier to learn.
  6. Yellow is the colour most likely to be remembered.
  7. Absenteeism, motivation and productivity are all influenced by the colours in the workplace décor.

Harmonious colour schemes improve all of these elements of the workplace, rather than highly saturated, dramatic colour schemes that actually clash.

Putting colours to work in business

In 1998, a well-known mail order company was planning to send out a promotional leaflet for a new opera CD. The in-house design team had specified warm red and black. A colour psychologist recommended that the black be replaced with a warm dark blue, so the client printed 50% of the leaflets in the original red and black and 50% in the red and blue of the adjusted palette; in every other respect the two leaflets were identical. The two mail outs were as similar as possible. The adjusted leaflet produced 5.6% more sales, which, in view of the size of the mail out, meant several hundred thousand more CDs were sold. There were no other points of difference between the two leaflets but the colours.

In 2004, a well-known global retailer conducted market research in four countries to establish the level of recognition of their brand in their stores. Just under 8% of respondents were aware of the brand identity inside their shops. There was no branding (logo) in the shops, but secondary branding outside. They commissioned a new palette of colours with the objective of increasing brand awareness purely through application of the corporate colours (still no logo ). When they repeated the research, in the same four countries, but with different observers, the brand awareness had risen to 80%.

In 2003, at a press event in Berlin, a global corporation decided to test if response to colour was indeed universal, and not, as is so often claimed, determined by cultural associations. The audience consisted of 300 journalists from 38 countries, both genders and a wide age range. The audience was asked to vote their preferences on keypads as they were shown a succession of slides. Each slide contained two small colour wheels – one with colours that had been put together in line with the principles of colour psychology, and the other with just one colour changed. The level of agreement with psychologically sound colour wheels in the audience was an astonishing 92.5%.

So the next time someone tells you your corporate colours look good, ask them: “But how do they make you feel?”