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The theory of colour

Kate Stokes – Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The rainbow connection! Everywhere around us colour, effecting, affecting, influencing, connecting. Colour is such a vital part of our lives. Paramount to us as designers. We need to understand it's power, it's impact the theories behind it. To understand colour theory however we must first understand the meaning of colour itself?

“Colour is the visual perceptual property corresponding in humans to the categories called red, blue, yellow, and others”(1).

Clear as mud?! Brown mud!

Basically, colour is a property of light as seen by us. It is derived by the spectrum of light that interacts with our eyes and light receptors. The way we see different colours depends on physical properties such as light absorption, reflection, or the emission spectra of what we are looking at. Have I lost you yet?

Colour theory is one element of the complete science of colour (chromatics – which includes the perception of colour by the human eye and brain, the origin of colour in materials, the physics of electromagnetic radiation in the visible range and colour theory in art).

In short, colour theory is a body of practical guidance to colour mixing and the visual effects of a specific colour combinations in the visual arts.

Development of the theory of colour

As a child you will probably remember being taught that there are three ‘primary’ colours – red, yellow and blue. We were told that any colour could be created by mixing these three colours in varying quantities. Turns out this isn’t quite true and it’s a little more complex!

Colour theory encompasses a multitude of definitions, concepts and design applications – enough to fill several encyclopedias. However, there are three basic categories of colour theory that are logical and useful: the colour wheel, colour harmony, and the context of how colours are used.

The colour wheel

You've probably heard of Sir Isaac Newton? Well, Sir Isaac developed the first circular diagram of colours (the colour wheel as we know it) in 1666. It was a circle, based on red, yellow and blue.

You may not have heard of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, but in 1810 Johann Wolfgang Goethe challenged Newton’s established colour system and created his own. He sought a system to govern the use of colour in art. At first he intended to create a new colour wheel, but found that an equilateral triangle was exactly suited to representing his discoveries. The apex triangles in this diagram below are the primary colours used by printers. The secondary triangles between them are the primary colours for painters, and the tertiary colours formed are the dark neutrals. While Newton’s system was based on scientific observation of additive colour mixing, Goethe’s method was more conceptual, based on the psychological effects of colour.

Goethe’s aim was to refine laws of colour harmony that incorporated the subjectivity of our colour perception, which depends on the object, the light, and how we perceive them. He studied complementary colours, the colours of shadows, and after-images. Goethe identified the origin of our understanding of complementary colours as stemming from the processes within our visual system, rather than being a property of the light that reaches our eyes. His theory opened the door for our modern understanding of colour vision. (2)

Since then, scientists and artists have studied and designed numerous variations of this concept. Differences of opinions in regards to the validity of one format over another continue to spur debate, however any colour circle or colour wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit.

Colour Harmony

Harmony can be defined as a pleasing arrangement of parts, this could be music, poetry, colour, or even an ice cream sundae! 

In visual experiences, harmony is something that is pleasing to the eye. It engages us (the viewer) and it creates an inner sense of order, a balance in the visual experience. When something is not harmonious, it's either boring or chaotic. That is it's either too bland to grab your attention or so overdone, so chaotic and busy that you can't stand to look at it. The human brain rejects what it can not organise, what it can't understand so the visual task is to present a logical structure. Colour harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order:

"extreme unity leads to under-stimulation, extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony is a dynamic equilibrium."(2)

Traditionally, there are a number of colour combinations that are considered especially pleasing. These are called colour harmonies and they consist of two or more colours with a fixed relation in the colour wheel. Some of the basic formulas are as follows:

Examples of these combinations can be seen below on some home made cards, from left to right monochromatic, analogous and complementary:

Colour Context

How colour behaves in relation to other colours and shapes is a complex area of colour theory. Compare the contrast effects of different colour backgrounds for the same red square here:

Red appears more brilliant against a black background and somewhat duller against the white background. In contrast with orange, the red appears lifeless; in contrast with blue-green, it's lively and loud. Notice that the red square appears larger on black than on other background colours.

And here, if your computer has sufficient colour stability and gamma correction (Is Your Computer Colour Blind?) you will see in the image on the right that the small purple rectangle on the left appears to have a red-purple tinge when compared to the small purple rectangle on the right. They are both the same colour. This demonstrates how three colours can be perceived as four colours.

Observing the effects colours have on each other is the starting point for understanding the relativity of colour. The relationship of values, saturation and the warmth or coolness of respective hues can cause noticeable differences in our perception of colour. (6)

Colour psychology – you 'red' it here first!

Now to the fun bit! Colour psychology is the study of hues as a determinant of human behavior. Colour influences perceptions that are not obvious, such as the taste of food. Colours can also work as placebos by having the colour of pills be certain colours to influence how a person feels after taking them. For example, red or orange pills are generally used as stimulants. Colour can indeed influence a person, however it is important to remember that these effects differ between people. Factors such as gender, age, and culture can influence how an individual perceives colour. Take for instance a recent study where males reported that red coloured outfits made women seem more attractive, while women answered that the colour of a male's outfit did not affect his attractiveness. (4)

Colour psychology is also widely used in marketing and branding and graphic design. Many marketers see colour as an important part of marketing because colour can be used to influence consumer emotions and perceptions of goods and services. Companies also use colour when deciding on brand logos. These logos seem to attract more customers when the colour of the brand logo matches the personality of the goods or services, such as the colour green being heavily used for BPs branding (environmentally aware/conscious).

We find this so interesting and it's really hard to narrow down what to say but I've tried! Here are a few main points of interest:

  • Influence of colour perception

    • Perceptions not obviously related to colour, such as the palatability of food, may in fact be partially determined by colour. Not only the colour of the food itself but also that of everything in the eater's field of vision can affect this.

  • Associations between colour and mood

    • Colour has long been used to create mood. However, how people are affected by different colour stimuli varies from person to person. 

    • There is evidence that colour preference may depend on ambient temperature. People who are cold prefer warm colours like reds and yellows, while people who are hot prefer cool colours like blues and greens. A few studies have shown that cultural background has a strong influence on colour preference. Some studies find that colour can affect mood. However, these studies do not agree on precisely which moods are brought out by which colours.

    • Despite all this blue seems to be a universal favourite. It is the favourite colour for people in Australia and 16 other countries. In America 35% favour the colour blue, followed by green (16%), purple (10%) and red (9%).

    • It is widely recognised that colours have a strong impact on our emotions and feelings. For instance the colour red has been associated with excitement, orange has been perceived as distressing and upsetting, purple as dignified and stately, yellow as cheerful and blue with comfort and security, hence the overwhelming favouritism towards it.

  • Uses in marketing and brand meaning

    • Colour is an important factor in the visual appearance of products as well as in brand recognition, causing colour psychology to become an important part of marketing. In fact, it has been proven that colour can be used to communicate brand personality.

    • With so many variables effecting colour and mood, marketers must be aware of the varying meanings and emotions that a particular audience can assign to colour (in particular their target audience).

    • The physiological and emotional effect of colour in each person is influenced by several factors such as past experiences, culture, religion, natural environment, gender, race, and nationality. When making colour decisions, it is important to determine the target audience in order to convey the right message. Colour decisions can influence both direct messages and secondary brand values and attributes in any communication. (5)

    • Research on the effects of colour on product preference and marketing shows that product colour could affect consumer preference and hence purchasing culture. Most results show that it is not a specific colour that attracts all audiences, but that certain colours are deemed appropriate for certain products. (6)

    • BRAND, this part is particularly important to us and our logo designs! Colour is a very influential source of information when people are making a purchasing decision. (7) Customers generally make an initial judgment on a product within 90 seconds of interaction with that product and about 62%-90% of that judgment is based on colour. (7) People often see the logo of a brand or company as a representation of that company. Without prior experience to a logo, we begin to associate a brand with certain characteristics based on the primary logo colour.

To help illustrate some of this for you we found a fabulous info graphic on Pinterest that has some great colour psychology examples for branding: Colour Psychology in Logo Design:

Specific colour meaning

We discussed briefly the emotions and moods colours provoke in us. This is quite complex and fluid, one colour can represent many moods and one mood can be represented by numerous colours. Different colours are perceived to mean different things. For example, tones of red lead to feelings of excitement while blue tones are often associated with feelings of relaxation. Both of these emotions are pleasant, so therefore, the colours themselves promote positive feelings in advertisements. The chart below gives perceived meanings of different colours in the United States:

Functional (F): fulfills a need or solves a problem (8)
Sensory-Social (S): conveys attitudes, status, or social approval (8)

Attracting attention

Colour is a great means to grab attention and is used as a means to attract consumers and clientelle. Think personally when you dress to go out – you’ll often wear black if you want to blend in however if you want to make an impact you might pop on your favourite ‘loud’ outfit of brightly coloured fabrics (your little red dress or tie!). Consumers use colour to identify known brands or search for new alternatives. People looking for something new will often look for non-typical colours, something that stands out from the crowd. And attractive colour packaging receives more consumer attention than unattractive colour packaging, which can then influence buying behaviour and promote purchases.

Interestingly, attention is captured subconsciously before people can consciously attend to something. (9) Research looking at electroencephalography (EEGs) while people made decisions on colour preference found brain activation when a favourite colour is present before the participants consciously focused on it. When looking a various colours on a screen people focus on their favourite colour, or the colour stands out more, before they purposefully turn their attention to it. This implies that products can capture someone's attention based on colour, before the person willingly looks at the product. (9)

Now these facts 'blue' me away!

So as you can see there’s more to mixing a little bit of red, green and blue together to understand and appreciate colour! Colour touches and effects everyone of us and plays a vital role in all our visual experiences. We see a red sign – we think warning, danger. Over time, we have learnt to ‘read’ the world around us using colour. As designers, we understand the power that colour holds over people, and harnessing this properly is what we try to achieve. Colour is one of the most powerful tools that we can use and understanding how colour affects everyone is the key in communicating messages effectively.

Now, some cool facts to finish off:

1. Colour increases brand recognition by up to 80 percent. Source: University of Loyola, Maryland study

2. Research reveals people make a subconscious judgment about a person, environment, or product within 90 seconds of initial viewing and that between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on colour alone. Source: CCIcolour – Institute for colour Research

3. Colour enhances memory – they says a picture’s worth a thousand words, well one with natural colours may be worth a million, memory-wise! Psychologists have documented that "living colour" does more than appeal to the senses. It also boosts memory for scenes in the natural world.

By adding extra information on visual scenes, colour helps us to process and store images more efficiently than colourless (black and white) scenes, and as a result to remember them better, too. Source: The findings were reported in the May 2002 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, published by the American Psychological Association (APA)

4. Ads in colour are read up to 42% more often than the same ads in black and white (as shown in study on phone directory ads). Source: White, Jan V., colour for Impact, Strathmoor Press, April, 1997

5. Colour can improve readership by 40 percent (a), learning from 55 to 78 percent (b), and comprehension by 73 percent (c).

(a)"Business Papers in colour. Just a Shade Better", Modern Office Technology, July 1989, Vol. 34, No. 7, pp. 98-102
(b) Embry, David, "The Persuasive Properties of colour", Marketing Communications, October 1984.
(c) Johnson, Virginia, "The Power of colour", Successful Meetings, June 1992, Vol 41, No. 7, pp. 87, 90.

6. Tests indicate that a black and white image may sustain interest for less than two-thirds a second, whereas a coloured image may hold the attention for two seconds or more.

Now I wonder if this sustained your interest to get all the way to the bottom of this post! Perhaps I should have used some different coloured fonts! If so and if you would still like more information on colour and how this could effect or improve your world – give us a call :) We’d love to chat about it (as you can see!!!!)

Click the images below to view our colour examples a little larger…


(1) Wikipedia – colour, theory of colour, psychology
(3) Illustrations and text, courtesy of colour Logic and colour Logic for Web Site Design
(7) Singh, Satyendra (2006). "Impact of colour on marketing". Management Decision 44 (6): 783–789. doi:10.1108/00251740610673332.
(8) Bottomley, P.A.; Doyle, J.R. (2006). "The interactive effects of colours and products on perceptions of brand logo appropriateness". Marketing Theory 6 (1): 63–83. doi:10.1177/1470593106061263.
(9) Kawasaki, Masahiro; Yamaguchi, Yoko. "Effects of subjective preference of colours on attention-related occipital theta oscillations". NeuroImage 59 (1): 808–814. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.042.

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