The Basics of Color

For centuries, people have closely associated colors with feelings. Light blues and soft yellows tend to fill people with happiness, while dark reds and blacks are both foreboding and depressing. Recent advances in psychology and a better understanding of the chemical nature of the brain have allowed scientists to study this phenomenon in detail, and have revealed that such changes in mood and feeling are much more than anecdote.

The human brain receives many subliminal cues from the colors it observes, which result in subtle changes of mood and perception. Scientists theorize that this is an evolved response relating to our ancestor’s predilection towards certain habitats and environments (1). Early humans lived in bright savannas and spent the day hunting and foraging, while the night was a period of vigilance and danger, since large predatory cats and other animals were always on the prowl. We therefore evolved a positive response to certain colors associated with good foods and safety, while we became instinctively wary and attentive in the presence of colors that indicated danger.

Modern color science has advanced through a mixture of both art and research, drawing on a long history of artistic endeavor. The first true attempts at making colors “pleasant” came with the development of color theory (2), which occurred during the Renaissance. It was during this period that modern, metal ion based pigments first became available, allowing such famous painters as Leonardo and Michaelangelo to paint within almost the entire spectrum of human sight. It was here that the “feelings” of color were first explored, with an emphasis on the sort of thoughts and emotions that were created by the evocative mixing of colors. This branch of color theory would continue well into the modern period, with artists such as Mark Rothko producing abstract art that was made out of nothing but blotches of color (3).

It was within color theory that the discovery of “complementary colors” was made (2). This theory lies behind the selection of almost all color pairs for schools and sports teams. It was found that certain colors contrast one another exceedingly well, not only making both colors much more visible, but also increasing the impact and “feeling” of each individual color. This is also why many sports teams have the same or similar color pairs, since there is a small number of complementary color pairs.

The study of chromatics and the influence of color on human psychiatry had began in the 1960s, when sociologists and historians began examining the role in which art (and thus color) played in the psychology of varying peoples and colors (4). While specific color meanings varied from culture to culture, overall psychology remained the same. It was quickly found that by changing the color of office furniture or re-painting the walls, it was possible to improve the mood and outlook of office workers. This quickly spread to areas such as schools; prisons and doctor’s offices, where subdued colors were employed in an attempt to keep people calm, focused and relaxed. This is why it is common to see subtle blues, yellows and greens on the interior of many such buildings, despite the fact that their overall purpose is quite different. In other words, we tend to jump on research without fully understanding it’s impact…

Advances in determining color as a mood enhancer came along later, when advertisers began to experiment (5). The advent of color magazines and television gave advertising agencies a strong reason to rely on bright colors in order to depict products as opposed to merely relying on demonstrations and testimonials. Advances in color science allowed for advertisers to set a mood as opposed to simply displaying a product, and the colorful nature of advertisements through the sixties and seventies becomes readily apparent. This use of color even continued on to reflect overall feelings of the time. Extremely bright, rainbow-like colors became popular in the 60s, as the rise of psychedelic culture brought them to prominence. Colors during the 1970s became more subtle and mellow, trending towards soft browns and yellows. This led into the dark blacks and bright neons of the 1980s, which emphasized both contrast and the promise of newness presented by then-new technologies such as cable television, VCRs, and home video game consoles.

Color science as advertising received another significant boost in the 1990s. With Apple and Microsoft both pushing forward operating systems based on a graphical user interface (6), it became important to carefully select color schemes which were friendly and relaxing, yet provided enough contrast to allow for users to clearly see their work. Advances in monitor, television and pigment technology during the 90s and early 00s allowed for advertisers to select almost any color, as display technology reached the physical limits of the human eye. Many marketing companies now employ color consultants to ensure that their color schemes match up properly (5) and that they convey the proper mood, something that is readily visible in modern advertisements.


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