Editor's note: Information contained in this article has been adapted from information contained in the book Environmental Psychology for Designers written by DAK Kopec, Ph.D, CHES and will be published in fall 2005 by Fairchild Books, a division of Fairchild Publications, Inc., New York NY.
In scientific terms, color is nothing more than a group of light waves that are either absorbed or reflected from pigments found within our environments. To many people however, these light bands that produce color can be very personal and translate into feelings and emotions. For many color is a way to express feelings, for others it affects how they feel, and for others the notion of color is so intertwined with culture and religion that color itself takes on profound meaning. These effects that color has on us are most probably learned at a young age. Some contend that the light waves themselves may interact with neural activity causing the manifestation of certain behaviors.
Color has long been used to describe certain emotions and behavior. "I was so mad I all I could see was red", "I'm having a blue day", "She's just green with envy", or "He's too yellow to ever stand up for himself". In these situations red is used to describe anger, blue sadness, green envy, and yellow cowardliness. As we grow up hearing these analogies we begin to incorporate them into our understanding of our own feelings. Ergo, we not only use them to describe how we feel, but the association between color and emotion becomes interwoven into symbolic meaning. For example, a friend of mine who is colorblind was unhappy to learn that his wife had painted their bathroom pink because, while he had never seen the color pink, it violated a learned symbolic expression of masculinity.
Some people find that they are positively or negatively affected by color. For these people bright colors such as red, orange and yellow are too stimulating and they find that they are unable to relax, and they feel antsy. For others, cooler rooms in darker greens, blues and purples make them sad or depressed. A study of workers' performance by *Stone and English A. (1998) found that workers in offices designed around cooler colors such as blues, purples and darker greens were able to concentrate more, had greater productivity levels, and left their desks less frequently. Other studies have revealed that when cooler colors are used in design, people perceive the environment itself to be cooler, while warmer colored rooms are perceived to be warmer.
Color has symbolic meanings that are reinforced through social rules. For example, the color red means stop while the green and yellow mean go and caution respectively. Some lesser uniform symbolism of color derives from culture and religion. For example, in most Western cultures the color black is used to denote evil or contamination. Eastern cultures however embrace the color black as being lucky or prosperous. Likewise, brides in Western cultures wear the color white as a symbol of purity. In Chinese culture the color red has a deep and powerful meaning and is used throughout wedding celebrations. Red in that culture is the symbol of happiness and ultimate joy, thus all Chinese weddings include the color red. So a culture's symbolic meaning of color evolves as its society evolves. For example, women who wore red in the not so distant past were considered promiscuous, and not many considered the color red as symbolic of strength and confidence. Likewise, men's suits maintain the traditional colors of navy, brown, grey and black, symbolizing conformity, while brighter colors such as red symbolize rogue behaviors.
Clearly, the effects of color on our behaviors are in part learned. Social reinforcement beginning almost immediately after birth starts the learned behavioral responses. However, when, where and why we developed associations to certain colors is open for debate. Some have suggested that the energy patterns in particular light waves cause certain behaviors. The principle is similar to food cravings. Our bodies crave deficient nutrients. The same could be true for the brain and the need for certain energies from certain bands of color.
For example, we know that humans need certain UV rays from the sun to facilitate the vitamin D. Likewise, we also know that early morning sunlight as opposed to evening sunlight facilitates the reuptake of melatonin, a substance that enables us to sleep, thereby helping us to wake up and be alert. Knowing the effects of light on our biological and neurological processes, it is quite possible that the bands of light that manifest as color can also affect our neurological functioning. However, neuroscience is still in its infancy and only time will reveal what, if any, effects color has on human behavior.
Color has long influenced our lives on several levels. For some this means expression of feelings and emotions, for others it has a direct influence on how we feel. While the relationship of color and mood is open for debate, color does have importance in most societies with symbolic meanings reinforced through social rules. We rely on color to take the place of words and give us simplified cues as to what is expected behavior. Violation of those social rules, such as driving through a red light, will have consequences. While there is no argument that our responses to color are learned, some contend that the origins of color are deeper and that there is a neurological effect of color that has not yet been discovered. Whatever the reason, color is an intricate part of our world and has and will continue to influence human behaviors and actions the world over.
*Stone, N. J. and English, A. J., (1998). Task Type, Posters, and Workspace Color on Mood, Satisfaction, and Performance. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 18, 2, 175—185.