Anger is red, tranquility is blue, but describing color is almost impossible to do.

Ah, yes — there are infinite ways to play with that familiar poem about roses and violets. But as with most narrations on color, the ode only mentions items that carry coloration, rather than the particular shade itself. Perhaps that’s because describing color in a universally accepted way is an impossible task; rather, it’s a sensory experience that is different for every individual. This was proven last year, when a picture of a dress went viral because viewers around the world simply could not agree on the color of the garment.

The closest we can come to an accurate portrait of any given color is to study the feelings and associations that are linked with each hue. After all, most people go about their daily lives without considering why warning signs are red, and why blue induces tranquil thoughts. For visual creatives, however, such information can be invaluable. To consider how color affects mood, we asked some of the world’s leading color experts for their insight.

Reacting to Stimuli

In order to understand the emotional impact of color, it is first necessary to take a whistle-stop tour of human physiology. As living organisms, we react to stimuli. This is not a conscious choice — think of the “jump” and pounding heartbeat caused by a sudden sound or shocking event. Color is also a stimulus, so scientists have to test our reactions in order to gain some insight into the effects of various tones.

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Red made her subjects feel tension and fatigue, although it is visually stimulating, said Dr. Ab. Jalil Image by Sean Locke Photography

Dr. Nurlelawati Binti Ab. Jalil works at the Department of Applied Arts and Design at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. Much of her research is based around our instinctive reactions to color. In one study, she asked test subjects to sit in a room with colored walls. Throughout the experiment, she measured the heart rate of each participant, and gave them a paper-based task in order to gauge their alertness. She found her group of test subjects reacted differently to the various colors, and the effects were dependent on the length of exposure.

“Red made my subjects feel tension and fatigue, although it is visually stimulating,” says Ab. Jalil, referring to the data. “Their heart rates were slower, and they performed poorly. It indicated they experienced discomfort at the sight of red, which distracted their attention from the task.” What about other colors? “Bluish-green also caused a decrease in heart rate and poorer performance — but emotionally, subjects were less affected by negative mood.” She explains that the cooler tones actually made test subjects too relaxed for optimal performance.

Notably, however, the effects of red only lasted for short bursts, while the calming influence of the blue-green shades had a positive effect during longer exposures. This backs up the suppositions of legendary color theorist Faber Birren, although subsequent research is limited; however, designers would still be advised to take note. “Many color studies that involve working spaces or learning institutions have highlighted the importance of color for productivity and positive influences,” Ab. Jalil points out.

Fellow researchers working in the field of psychology have noted that boxers wearing red were more likely to win their bouts than those wearing blue. Even the color of your poker chips, or the tie you wear to work may have some small impact.

Cultural Perception

There is evidence to show that some colors evoke reactions due to ever-present associations. For instance, even our most ancient of ancestors would have felt angst when seeing a rush of red blood, or satisfaction at waking to find blue skies overhead. In most cases, though, the way we perceive color is shaped by our native culture.

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The way we perceive color is shaped by our native culture. Image by f9photos

Someone who has studied this carefully is Joe Hallock, who currently works as a design manager at Microsoft. Earlier in his career, while studying at the University of Washington, he authored a project that sought to decipher the meaning of color to different people. He stumbled upon some interesting associations. “For example, in Western cultures, people tend to wear dark or black clothing to funerals, whereas in China, people wear very bright or white clothing,” he says. In some cases, such differences are cultural. Mexicans wear white to celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), while Hindu funerals are usually vibrant. But in his study, Hallock also notes that some languages don’t even have specific words for green, blue, yellow, or orange. For example, Russian has no single word for blue, and the Amazonian tribal language of Pirahã, as spoken in Brazil, has no color terms at all.

One striking graph in Hallock’s online paper showed a significant divide between the favorite colors of different age groups. He has his own hypothesis for this strange phenomenon: “As children, we have certain color preferences. As we get older, outside factors influence us and we change.”

In fact, Hallock was unable to find any truly universal color associations despite extensive investigation. This all suggests that nurture — as in, behavior and traits developed over a lifetime — rivals nature, or innate characteristics, as the primary influence on our understanding of color.

Applied (Color) Theory

Despite the numerous factors that seem to influence our perceptions of color, many people within each culture seem to share similar views about various shades. In the creative industries, such trends can be extremely important.

As part of Pantone’s team of expert design consultants, Leatrice Eiseman knows color preferences better than most. “There are always the psychological connotations that go along with each color family,” she states. “As a general rule, blues are regarded as trustworthy, red as dynamic, and so on.” But these broad brush strokes are too indefinite for the particulars of design, she continues. “There are many values, shades and intensities in each of the color families, so it is difficult to generalize.”

Eiseman reels off a couple of examples: “While blue is a credible, serene kind of color, electric blue is exactly the opposite. Brown can mean richness, as in expensive chocolates or a sumptuous cup of coffee, or even a supple leather jacket; it can also mean rich soil, and for some people, dirt.” In other words, context shapes the ideas and feelings that each color brings to mind when we see a particular hue.

colorful office setting
Image by dotshock

Among the subtleties, there are still overarching rules which apply everywhere. “Deepening almost every color family adds ‘weight’ to the color,” says Eiseman. This could be very positive for a legal firm wishing to portray gravitas, but less suitable for a party organizer.

When direct sales or online conversions are the objective, the dynamism of red can drive consumer decision-making. In one striking example, online marketing automation company Performable saw a 21 percent jump in new signups after changing the call-to-action buttons on its website from green to red. It turns out that the color that was so distracting for Ab. Jalil’s test subjects is eye-catching in a different context. “Red is often mentioned as a power color,” Eiseman points out.

These “rules” are useful as guidelines, but the most successful designs use colors that are optimized for the target demographic. When working with clients, Eiseman takes many factors into consideration. “Firstly, who is the target audience? That informs me instantly as to which consumers will be buying the product. Their age, location, lifestyle, and that sort of information is very meaningful,” she says. Gender is another key separator. For instance, the research done by Joe Hallock indicates that purple is popular with women, but is one of the colors most disliked by men.

Color can also play a significant part in branding. This is the next step in Eiseman’s workflow: “What is the company’s image? How do they want to be perceived?” The classic example is Facebook, a social network that is often viewed as intrusive, which uses blue branding to calm users and convey trustworthiness.

Future Trends

In this age of optimization and constant A/B testing, the psychological effects of color are still relatively under-exploited. Research shows that consumers usually assess a product in the first 90 seconds; between 62 and 90 percent of that assessment is based on color. The rise of visual media will only concentrate the effects of this phenomenon. In spite of the overwhelming evidence, most small businesses are completely unaware of the potential gains to be made from the right color choices.

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Image by Andrey Protsenko

Likewise, Ab. Jalil believes her research shows how color can affect productivity in the workplace. “There are huge gaps and potential possibilities that are yet to be explored,” she says. She points to Japan, where observational evidence links blue street lighting with a reduction in crime and attempted suicides. A peer review published in 1996 even concluded that the color of medicinal drugs can affect their efficacy.

There is much more scientific research still to be done, but the message is clear: Color influences our subconsciouses, and this knowledge will be used to greater effect in the years to come.