Colour Semiotics – a personal view

Colour is an important component of many successful designs. It is interesting, therefore, to consider why certain colours are chosen in designs and under which circumstances the colour choices enhance the likelihood that the design will be successful. In this paper, four aspects of colour design (colour harmony, colour preference, colour forecasting and colour semiotics) will be briefly considered and one of these, colour semiotics, will be explored in some detail. Finally, the role of all four of these aspects of colour in the design process will be discussed.

Colour Harmony

Colour harmony is concerned with the relationship between colours. One definition of colour harmony is that it refers to when two or more colours are seen in neighbouring areas that produce a pleasing effect (Judd & Wyszecki, 1975). Many theories of colour harmony are ideological in nature and Itten wrote, for example, that ‘One essential foundation of any aesthetic color theory is the color circle, because that will determine the classification of colors’. In the last 150 years, Rood (1831-1901), Ostwald (1853-1932), Munsell (1858-1918), Itten (1888-1967) and others proposed various theories that were based on certain geometric relationships in a colour circle (or more generally in a colour space) being harmonious (Westland et al., 2007). For example, colour combinations whose representations in a colour space form the vertices of a triangle are considered to be harmonious according to some theories. Most of these theories were based on personal introspection and a belief that classical geometric shapes should frame the colour relationships that are harmonious but there is no a priori reason why this should be. Moreover, there have been few studies to robustly test whether theories of colour harmony can be justified empirically. However, when referring to colour harmony it is not always clear that authors are even referring to the same thing. Colour harmony has been used to refer to colours being pleasing, harmonious, and successful. In addition, it is generally accepted that ideas about colour harmony shift over time (Nemcsics, 1993) with fashion and taste and this has led some to claim that “It is quite evident that there are no universal laws of (colour) harmony” (Kuehni, 2005). Nor is it even clear that laws are even required since the majority of designers and artists naturally are able to select colour combinations that are harmonious (by whichever definition) without assistance. It is therefore, perhaps, useful to place colour harmony in the field of aesthetics.

Colour Preference

Colour preference is also best placed in the field of aesthetics but is generally used to refer to a single colour – though the distinction between colour harmony and colour preference is being explored by the work of Ou and colleagues (e.g. Ou et al., 2004b). An early study was carried out by Guildford and Smith (1959) who asked 40 observers to assess the pleasantness of each of 316 Munsell samples according to an 11-point scale (where 0 and 10 corresponded to the least and most pleasant colours imaginable respectively). This study, like most others since, revealed a preference for blue and green colours and a dislike of yellow (on average, of course; individual results usually vary greatly). More recently, 208 participants undertook a simple forced-choice ‘color-picking’ task and the data revealed a robust cross-cultural sex difference (Hurlbert and Ling, 2007) with females’ hue preferences shifted to longer wavelengths when compared with those of males. Hurlbert and Ling suggested the sex differences may be linked to the evolution of sex-specific behavioural uses of trichromacy. Schloss and Palmer also recently studied colour preferences and found that despite, on average, participants preferring yellow hues to blue hues there was considerable variability between individual colour preferences. They proposed an ecological valence theory that suggests that people prefer colours that are associated with objects and situations that are affectively positive for them (Schloss and Palmer, 2010). However, in all of these studies, when observers are asked which colours they prefer it is not clear that they always respond with the same purpose in mind (that is, in what sense or context are the observers judging preference?).

Colour Forecasting

Colour forecasting is a particular phenomenon that relates mainly, but not exclusively, to the textiles fashion and interior design fields (Diane and Cassidy, 2005). It involves the prediction of future colour trends via an appraisal of past colour trends and an assessment of lifestyles associated with these trends. It is not at all clear that colour forecasting is a forecasting or predictive process at all and there is no empirical evidence that colour consumption is influenced by socioeconomic lifestyle factors at all (Stansfield and Whitfield, 2005). Despite this, colour forecasting is an important component in many colour-production industries. It could, however, be argued that colour forecasting should be placed in the field of marketing since the process could be argued to be more about telling consumers which colours they wish to purchase rather than predicting which colours consumers would like to purchase.

Colour Semiotics

Colour semiotics is concerned with the meanings that colours are able to communicate. Colours can evoke strong emotional responses in viewers and can also communicate meanings and or concepts through association. For example, in many western societies black is associated with death and the mourning process. Consequently, colour may play a role in imparting information, creating lasting identity and suggesting imagery and symbolic value (Hynes, 2008). There seem to be at least three different origins for colour semiotics. Firstly there is the emotional or visceral impact of colours. Colours can have a strong emotional impact and can even affect our physiological state. For example, red colours have been cited to raise the blood pressure and colours have been reported to affect muscular strength (Hamid and Newport, 1989; O’Connell, Harper and McAndrew, 1985). We fear the dark. Perhaps these effects are innate and have been present since the earliest days (the effect of red has sometimes been attributed to the colour of blood and our fear of black may relate to a primitive fear of the dark and unknown.) Secondly there are socio-economic origins. In western society purple became associated with wealth and royalty because purple dyestuff was more expensive than gold. Only extremely rich people could afford to wear purple and some organizations (e.g. the Christian church) chose to use purple to make a statement about their wealth and power. Thirdly, some colours meanings are cultural in origin. The association of red with luck in China and the link between pink for girls and blue for boys in western society may originate in and be reinforced by cultural behaviour and shared understanding. For example, in the United Kingdom pink was associated with young boys until about 1920 after which blue came to signify the male professions, most notably the navy (Koller, 2008). The importance of colour semiotics has been noted in corporate visual identities (Hynes, 2008), human computer interaction (Bourges-Waldegg and Scrivener, 1998), political communication (Archer and Stent, 2002), and as a marker for gender and sexuality (Koller, 2008). Koller undertook a study of the colour pink and found, from a survey of 169 participants, that 76 per cent of participants made the association of pink with femininity. Pink was also associated with romance (56%), sweetness (52%), softness (51%), love (50%) and several other concepts (Koller, 2008). Men were less likely to make synesthetic associations for pink than were females who also seemed to have a more differentiated schema for pink. In addition to the link between pink and femininity, Koller (2008) also found emergent associations of pink with fun, independence and confidence. However, although black is often associated with death it can have other meanings; for example it can be associated with power or evil, and the actual meaning in any particular situation depends upon the context in which the colour is used; it can also depend upon other aspects of visual appearance such as gloss and texture (Lucassen, Gevers and Gijsenij, 2010). Furthermore, the meanings for a colour can also depend upon culture and can vary over time. For example, in some countries black is not the colour that is most associated with death (white is used instead). The appropriate use of colour semiotics can impact greatly on the success of a design (particularly one that has a branding or marketing dimension). However, it is clear that colour meanings and associations can vary with a great many factors. On the one hand the connection of meaning and colour seems obvious, natural nearly; on the other hand it seems idiosyncratic, unpredictable and anarchic (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2002). Indeed, social groups that share common purposes around colour are often relatively small and specialized compared to groups who share speech or visual communication (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2006). Grieve goes further to suggest that colour per se does not elicit response, but the particular meaning or significance of the colour seems context-bound and varies from one person or situation to another (Grieve, 1991).

Despite the previously discussed context–‐dependence of colour semiotics most robust studies that have explored colour semiotics have done so for colour patches viewed in an abstract sense, devoid of context. The colour science community tend to use the term colour emotion instead of colour semiotics; for example, Gao et al. (2007) wrote that “The semantic words describing words such as “warm-cool”, “light‐dark”, “soft‐hard”, etc.”. The colour science community also tend to study bi-polar pairs of semantic words such as “soft-hard”. In these circumstances it has been found that there is an effect of culture but that it is limited (Lucassen et al., 2010). Indeed, even the medium (e.g. digital display or hardcopy paper) has been shown to have little effect on the emotions or meanings that observers attribute to different colours (Suk and Irtel, 2010). This would seem to contradict greatly with the earlier view (Grieve, 1991) that colour per se (without context) does not elicit response. Nevertheless, most formal studies in the last decade have explored whether there are cultural, gender or age effects in terms of the meanings associated with colours by observers when viewing colours without context (typically square patches of colour viewed on a computer screen). For example, one study (Gao et al., 2007) studied observers from seven countries (Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Italy, Spain and Sweden) who were asked to rate 214 colour samples each in terms of 12 bi-polar word pairs (e.g. soft-hard). The differences between the nationality groups were small despite the different cultural backgrounds. In another study (Ou et al., 2004a) 14 British and 17 Chinese observers assessed 20 colours in terms of 10 bi‐polar word pairs. The differences between the responses from the two groups were small with the exception of like‐dislike and tense-relaxed. Chinese observers tended to prefer colours that were clean, fresh or modern whereas this tendency did not occur for British observers. British observers tended to associate tense with active colours, whereas Chinese observers associated tense with the colours that were hard, heavy, masculine, or dirty. In a second study (Ou et al., 2004b) 8 British and 11 Chinese observers assessed 190 colour pairs in terms of 11 bi-polar word pairs. No significant differences were found between the UK and Chinese responses but some gender differences were found; there was poor correlation between male and female responses in terms of the masculine-feminine word pair and female observers tended to like colours that were light, relaxed, feminine or soft (whereas this association did not occur for male observers). It seems clear that colour per se does have meaning but the question of whether these meanings are consistent across culture, age and gender is not entirely clear. As Gage (1999) wrote, “To what extent different colours, such as red or black, have cross-cultural significance, is an altogether more difficult question.” Perhaps one reason why these formal studies have not been able to provide definitive answers to the question of whether colour meaning and emotion depends upon culture (and even gender) is because they have traditionally been carried out with quite small numbers of participants. The two studies by Ou et al. (2004a; 2004b) involved 31 and 19 participants respectively. These studies typically involved small numbers of observers in part because the experiments are carried out in laboratories using carefully controlled and calibrated equipment so that the exact specifications of the colours displayed can be known. One way to involve much greater numbers of participants is to use a web-based experiment and such a study is currently being undertaken by the author (Westland and Mohammadzadeh, 2012). Web–‐based experiments have several advantages including access to large numbers of observers and minimal interruption to observers and experimenter. Of course, the disadvantages are also numerous including potential sources of colour variation including, display technology, ambient illumination level, observer bias an, deficiencies and anomalies and operating software. However, currently responses have been collected for more than 2000 observers from over 50 countries worldwide and this work, when complete, has the potential to allow definitive conclusions to be drawn on the question of whether colour semiotics are invariant to cultural background and gender. The issue of how to address colour semiotics in a design context remains an open question and can currently only be addressed by ad hoc studies that contribute little to the theoretical debate.

References

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