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Color: It’s All in Your Head

Table of Contents

As important as color is — not just in design, but in our everyday lives — is it possible that it’s actually a completely subjective experience? Does color only exist in our heads? Let’s examine…

Back to Basics: What is Color?

Do you know the science behind color? You probably learned this in grade school, but here’s a refresher for those who have forgotten (or slept through it). In the simplest terms, color = waves of electromagnetic radiation. In order to experience color, we must have light. The sun’s rays contain white light — all the colors of the rainbow mixed together. Different colors have different wavelengths (which is the distance between corresponding parts of two of the waves). When light shines on an object, some wavelengths (colors) bounce off the object and others are absorbed by it. Our eyes only see the colors that are bounced off or reflected. The longest wavelength of light that humans can see is red, about 700 nanometers (nm).

Most people will look at an object and associate color as a property of that object (e.g. an apple is red or grass is green). But this is not technically correct. The more accurate explanation is this: the molecular composition of that apple gives it the ability to reflect wavelengths of 620-700 nm. It is how we experience that wavelength that is subjective. “Color” is actually the brain’s reaction to the wavelength of light that is reflected into our eyes.

For a visual demonstration of this, watch this video starting at about 5:30. In it, a light source is projected onto t-shirts of varying colors. The difference of this light, as opposed to the sun’s white light, is that it only projects a single wavelength, not the full spectrum that we are used to. Under these conditions, the t-shirts appeared only in shades of light or dark. The t-shirts themselves didn’t have a “color”, it was all due to the light that was hitting it.

In this sense, color is not a property of an object, or even of electromagnetic radiation, but is a feature of visual perception by an observer.

The Philosophy of Color Perception: An Interesting Read

How does color exist if no one is there to see it? Think about that for a moment! For a bit of history and insight on this age-old question, check out this fascinating article on color perception.

Differences in Perception:

Does everyone see color in the same way? The simplest answer is no. Most human eyes can see an average of 10 million different colors. We assume that our brains have a default way of processing light and that it is the same for everyone. This is not an illogical assumption; in general, it is mostly true. But varying factors can influence our perception. Here are some reasons why we may see color differently:

Men vs. Women: Gender Matters

One of the main differences between how men and women perceive color involves the condition of color-blindness. Men have a higher chance of being colorblind than women, and the degree can vary from mild to extreme.

Lighting Conditions Make All the Difference

Perception of color depends heavily on the context in which the perceived object is presented. One example of this phenomenon is the social media craze that popped up a few months ago — remember “The Dress”?? When viewing a photo of a dress, people were staunchly adamant that they saw it as either white and gold or blue and black. The hotly contested answer to the simple question of “what color is the dress?” caused such an uproar that it made people question their own (and others’) sanity! This is a clear demonstration of how color is perceived differently by individuals. One person is sure they see gold, while another swears it’s white. But why is this the case?

A person’s brain is able to compensate for the effects of lighting shifts. For example, a piece of white paper shown under pink light will reflect the color of that light and visually appear pink. But the brain is not that easily fooled! Based on the color shift of other surrounding objects, it still understands that the paper is white, not actually pink. With context, the brain understands how to deal with lighting shifts. But an isolated photo of a blue/black or white/gold dress may not necessarily provide appropriate context for the brain to compensate for the differences in lighting and correctly identify colors.

The Impact of Culture on Color

The indigenous people of the Himba Tribe have been found to categorize colors differently from most European-Americans and are able to easily distinguish close shades of green that are barely discernible for most other people. The Himba have categorized the color spectrum into dark shades (zuzu in Himu), very light (vapa), vivid blue and green (buru) and dry colors (dambu).

Perhaps the Himba brain has adapted as a result of being raised in that culture to be more sensitive to colors that are more important to their semi-nomadic way of life.

Design and Marketing Implications:

Understand that while most will perceive color similarly, there will always be the chance of others seeing it differently than you. What does this mean for your marketing?

When men are a target audience…

Genetically, men have a greater chance of color-blindness because the genes involved in color vision are carried on the X chromosome. Since men only have one X chromosome, any defect will be expressed, whereas women can rely on their second X chromosome to override any color deficiency that may be carried on the other one.

One of the common color vision defects is red-green deficiency, which is present in about 8 percent of males. This does not mean that they simply mix up red and green, but that they cannot distinguish, for example the ‘red’ part of purple, making purple appear more as blue to them. How many times have you been arguing with a man that the shirt they are calling ‘blue’ is in fact teal?

It is also probable (at the risk of gender-stereotyping) that a typical man simply doesn’t have as wide of a color vocabulary as women do, at least in our society. Ask a man what “mauve” is and they would likely have no idea. Not because they are color-blind, but simply because they just don’t care and/or never had a reason to disect and assign any importance to all the different shades of purple that exist.

So if you are marketing primarily to men, then you may have a different set of considerations to ponder. It means you probably don’t want to base important decisions on color alone. Make sure you are aware of how men could actively perceive color that you present to them in marketing materials and campaigns. Market research is one method to employ when you are experimenting with the best color choices to use.

Stay tuned! Color in general will be explored in further blog posts regarding how the color choices used in your marketing and branding affect people psychologically.

Clarifying Color…

“Of all the properties that objects appear to have, color hovers uneasily between the subjective world of sensation and the objective world of fact.” Mazviita Chirimuuta, Outside Color

In reality, it is debatable just how much “color” exists outside of our brains. And for some, the very question is a pointless philosophical exercise in semantics. Even so, color perception affects many aspects of our lives, and its subjectivity cannot be denied. Whether it’s an argument over how a paint color looks to two different people or you are a business owner trying to develop your next marketing campaign, keep in mind that people can see color differently. When focusing on your marketing efforts, make sure to do the right research in order to give the best presentation for your visual brand. That way, you can reach your target audience in the best way possible.

Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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