Does context affect colour meaning?

One of the reasons that colour is such a powerful and important property is that it conveys information. Colour imparts meaning. If you see a big red button you may understand that something important or dramatic may happen if you press it. If someone is wearing bright yellow clothes it might imply something about their personality. Take a walk into a toy store and notice the swathes of pink in the girls’ section (though note that I don’t imply that this is a good thing; indeed, I would refer you to the pink stinks campaign in order that you may become a right-thinking person). But it is clear that the manufacturers of the toys believe that the colour pink will indicate that these are toys for girls and that its use may even make girls want to have these toys. If you see two washing-up liquids and one is green and one is yellow you might think that they would smell of apples and lemons respectively before you even open them! Colour sells. And part of the reason that colour sells is that it is informative. Colours have meanings.

But does colour per se have meaning or does colour only have meaning when it is an attribute of a product? The colour red on an emergency stop button may have one meaning but the colour red on the soles on Louboutin shows may have an altogether different meaning. And, of course, colours mean one thing in one culture but another in a different culture; black is commonly associated with death in the West but in China and some other countries in Asia death is more commonly associated with white. Nevertheless, I do believe that colour per se, that is colour in an abstract sense, does have meaning and there are a number of studies out there that tend to support me (though some social scientists, in particular, who would disagree).

What I mean by this is that if we take a culture, such as the UK, then a colour such as red will be associated with various ideas and concepts to varying degrees of strength. Red may take on different meanings when applied to different products (that is, in context). But is there any relationship between the abstract colour meaning and the product colour meaning? This is the question that Seahwa Won (who was a PhD student working with me) and I asked each other that led to a piece of work and an academic paper.

If there is no relationship between abstract colour meanings and  product colour meanings then it might mean that there is little practical or commercial value in studying abstract colour preferences (though it may still be worthy of study). On the other hand, if there is a relationship between abstract colour meanings and  product colour meanings then knowing the former may help us to predict the latter in a wide range of circumstances. To carry out our study we used scaling (I have blogged about some aspects of scaling before) where we try to quantify the perceptual response of participants to physical stimuli. For example, we show people a colour patch on a display screen and then below this there is a slider bar which allows the participants to respond whether the colour is warm, for example, or cool. We do this for lots of colours and lots of participants (nobody said colour science was easy!!) and then we can average these and have a warm-cool scale along which we can place all the colours. When we do this, for example, we find that participants think red is much warmer than blue. However, what Seahwa and I also did was to repeat this type of experiment with different colour products rather than simple colour patches. Would participants place a red toilet roll on the same point on the warm-cool scale as the red colour in an abstract sense? If they would then we can conclude that abstract colour preferences and product colour preferences are related.

We did this for quite a few different scales (warm-cool, expensive-inexpensive, modern-traditional, etc.) and for for a few different colours. The figure below shows the results when we explored the masculine-feminine scale. Look at the left-hand part first, where it says chip along the bottom. Chip indicates the abstract colour meanings (for example, when participants view a simple square or chip of colour). Note that participants scale beige, red and yellow as being feminine colours whereas black, blue and green are more masculine colours. Now look at the right-hand part of the figure, where it says crisps (in the UK a crisp is something you buy in a bag to eat; Americans may call these potato chips). When we showed crisp packets that were differently coloured the masculine-feminine scale values were almost the same as for the abstract colours themselves. We found strong relationships between abstract colour meanings and product colour meanings more often than not.

Our findings are broadly compatible with an earlier study by Taft in 1996 who found that there was no significant effect of context on colour meaning in the majority of cases. We did find some effects of context though. For example, black-coloured medicine was perceived as being more feminine that the abstract colour black itself.

We published this paper in 2016 in the journal Color Research and Application and you can read the paper in full here.

Won S & Westland S, 2017. Colour meaning in context, Color Research and Application42 (4). 450-459.

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