A look at how we react to colour

Why is colour important?

Amazingly the human eye can distinguish 17 million different colours. Our eyes have red, green and blue receptors that detect electromagnetic waves; and these are interpreted by the brain as colours. The associations we have with colour are formed as a result of psychological, cultural and historical reasoning. Within the brain, visual is our dominant sense as it takes up 40% of our brain space, compared to just 8% for touch and 3% for hearing. Therefore, colour is an important part of our visual experience.

How does the eye react to colour and how does it trigger our brain response?

Red is the first colour we recognise due to the dominance of red cone receptors in our eyes; hence it is associated with power, action and taps into our need for action. It reduces thinking time and has been associated with love/attraction – think ‘Lady in Red’ song, red roses etc, and in China it is also the colour of celebration.

Several studies have been done into how red is the colour for winners in sport, however it is also worth noting that it can be a disadvantage in martial arts where it helps the opponent to anticipate the next move and also on the football pitch when the referee is more likely to pick up if a player wearing red makes a wrong move (BBC).

Orange is a great mix of the strength of red and the fun of yellow. It is typically associated with creativity, cheerfulness and friendliness. Easyjet is a great example of a company that uses orange within its branding to this effect, to associate with fun and accessible travel. Interestingly it is also the easiest colour to see in dim light or foggy conditions, think of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, life boats and astronauts.

Yellow is the colour that stimulates the mind – remember traditionally post-its were always yellow! For many of us it represents sunshine, happiness and positivity, however it is also a colour that some people can get tired of seeing consistently. It can also be a difficult colour to have in a bedroom as children find it difficult to sleep.

Green is the colour of harmony and relaxes the mind, this is because it travels on the middle wavelengths and the eye has to do very little to interpret it. This means it is restful for the mind and is thus associated with being calming and stress-free, and if you look that the colour of nature and growth, you can see how this works.

Interestingly it was often used in Victorian hospital wards and equally nowadays, TV production companies have the ‘green room’ to welcome guests and calm their nerves before going in front of the camera. It has also been linked to illness, envy or jealous with cultural links too.

Blue is the colour of calm and peace. Pre-historically we were coded to look for the colour as life giving, as we searched for water holes as part of our survival. It is linked to trust and darker shades are associated with authority, hence the prevalence of navy in the corporate world and with uniforms. It is also said to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, hence it is often used in hospitals on cardiac units, however it also acts as an appetite suppressant and can make people feel cold when used in interior decoration.

Purple represents royalty, wealth and prestige. Until the 1850s, purple was the most expensive colour dye to make, as you needed many thousands of shellfish to create the colour. William Henry Perkin turned the fashion world on its head in 1856 when he was just 18, by creating an artificial dye which made the colour ‘mauve’ accessible to the masses. It is associated with mystery, older age and luxury, and it is a colour which is very popular with pre-adolescents. On the minus side, it can also represent disease, loneliness and funerals.

White represents the presence of all colours as white light represents. It is both a safe and exciting colour, as it blends in with all other colours but equally it represents a blank canvas that you can create anything with – hence the preference for white table tops for learning. It is also associated with cleanliness, innocence, cowardice, peace, heaven and purity. In some cultures it represents mourning.

Black is the essence of glamour, sophistication and sleekness, equally it is associated with death, despair and bad moods. In colour preference tests, black is often actively disliked and rarely selected. Black can represent both conformity in terms of black tie events and also rebellion with some groups. Some people use black to hide and also to slim as it absorbs light, rather than reflecting, thus making them appear smaller.

By Hannah Jean, Personal Stylist and Master Style Consultant

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