I blog about anything related to colour and I am interested in all sorts of aspects of colour whether they be based in arts and design, cultural studies, evolution, chemistry, physics, biology or technology. But a couple of themes keep cropping up and I end up posting about them at regular intervals. So, in 2012 I posted about the historical development of the UK flag – the union jack. And then earlier this year I posted about an article on the BBC about the possible redesign on the union jack is Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom in the forthcoming referendum there. Some of the designs that were being put forward were really horrible. Perhaps I am too attached to the union jack. A few days ago I came across another BBC story which included 25 readers’ designs for the union jack should Scotland leave. . I must say I much prefer the readers’ designs rather than those previously proposed by experts – the BBC reliably informs me that such experts are known as vexillologists. I like this flag (by David and Gwyneth Parker) – where the blue of Scotland has simply been swapped for the green of Wales, thus preserving the traditional look. (If you wonder why the green of Wales is not in the current flag see my earlier post.)
And I also like the following design (by Matthew Welch), where England and Wales are represented in the top left and bottom right corners respectively and the diagonal stripe represents Northern Ireland of course.
You probably have to be from the UK to understand this humorous design (by Al Main).
You can see all 25 readers’ designs at the BBC here.
If you are interested in vexillology (is that a word?) you may like to read another BBC story about a potential new flag for Norther Ireland. And finally, I was interested that the CIA apparently has a flag database that it makes available to the public.
Some of you may recall that last year – a big year for the UK with the Olympics in London and Queen’s jubilee – there was a lot of waving of British flags. I posted about how the flag was derived historically and noted the absence of any representation by Wales. For those who are less familiar, the United Kingdom is a union of four countries (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). By contrast Great Britain is just England, Scotland and Wales (not including Northern Ireland) and the British Isles is a geographical feature that includes the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Simple?
Next year the Scottish people be asked if they want to be independent. If they vote yes (in my opinion this is not very likely, but possible) it will signal the end of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Today the BBC ran a feature about possible new designs of the new flag. I wasn’t very impressed by any of them, including the horrible one below. Try reading my post first and then the new BBC article.
As some of you may know, I was General Chair of AIC2013 this year. We had a great time in Newcastle and spent a week with over 600 delegates talking about colour. But time moves on and we are approaching 2014. I would therefore like to draw your attention to the next AIC meeting which is in Mexico in October 2014. The theme is colour and culture and the venue – Oaxaca – is stunning. I hope to see you there.
For further details visit http://www.aic2014.org/index_en.html
I would argue that there is no such thing as visible light – or at least that the term visible light is a meaningless one.
Light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum which is describes electromagnetic radiation by its wavelength. An electromagnetic wave has both electric and magnetic field components. What is really very interesting is that depending upon the wavelength of the field the electromagnetic radiation has very different properties and we give it a different name.
When the wavelength is very long, the radiation is radio waves or micro waves. When the wavelength is very short, the radiation is x-rays or gamma rays. There is a narrow range of wavelengths (from about 360 nm to about 780 nm – a nm is 0.000000001 of a metre) to which our eyes are sensitive. Because we can literally see this radiation we call it light. I still find it amazing that light, x-rays, radio waves, and microwaves are all essentially the same thing (electromagnetic radiation) with just a change in the wavelength!! However, my point for today is that light is radiation that is visible – to talk about visible light would be bizarre since by its very definition light is visible. Technically, visible light is a pleonasm; pleonasm is a word derived from the Greek word “pleon” meaning excessive. Other examples of pleonasms – easily confused with oxymora – include the phrases end result and invited guests.
I am currently carrying out some research using an on-line questionnaire about colour choices by consumers in product design. It would really help me a lot if you would take the survey. It only takes about 1 minute to complete. The link is http://questionpro.com/t/AKSnxZP9ij. Please feel free to share this link.
In a few weeks when the survey is completed you can come back to this page and you can see more details about what we were doing, why we were doing it, and what we found.
A few years ago I just didn’t really get the Kindle. Why would anyone buy a device that looks and behaves like something several generations behind a modern tablet? After all, can’t an iPad do every a Kindle can do and lots more? That was before I tried a Kindle and understood what people mean by e-paper. Fundamentally an iPad is a light-emissive device whereas the Kindle is a light-reflective device. In the dark the iPad is great but try reading it on a sun bed on holiday. Whereas the Kindle is hard to read in the dark but is easier to read in very bright conditions; just like an old-fashioned book or newspaper.
But there are two things that still let e-paper technology down. The refresh rate is slow and it’s mainly still just shades of grey. Where is the colour e-paper that promised to revolutionise our mobile displays? According to industry expert Sean Buckley the technology of colour e-paper may be grinding to a halt. And now it seems that consumers are losing interest in e-readers anyway. To read Sean’s fascinating account in full please click here.
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 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 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 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 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.
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Of course, one of the reasons (but by far not the only one) that the iphone has been so successful is the quality of the camera that is built in. It was certainly one of the features that made me switch from Nokia about 3 years ago after more than 15 years of loyalty to the swedish brand. So I was interested to read recently that the next iphone may feature advanced colour correction methods and promises to be even better than its predecessors. You can read about the story here.
Colour correction is necessary because different cameras use different RGB primaries and because the activation of the RGB sensors when taking an image depend upon the quantity and quality of the ambient illumination. So, for example, imagine the light was very very red, then the R channel of the camera would be more strongly activated than if the light was whiter. However, our visual systems are able to compensate for this so that most of the time we don’t notice objects changing colour when we move from one room to another or from inside to outside. Colour correction is inspired by human colour constancy and attempt to correct the images so that the objects in the scene would retain their daylight appearance. However, colour correction is difficult; that is, it is very difficult to get it right all of the time. One frustration I have is taking a photo of my band (I play drums in a covers band) under very colourful lighting. Often the images are very disappointing and lack the intensity of the original scene. That is because, human colour constancy is only partial and under extreme lighting things really do change colour markedly – such as under our intense LED stage lighting. In these cases I think sometimes the automatic colour correction is actually too much and I have found that I have to modify the images I capture on my mac to try to recreate what I think the original scene looked like. So auto colour correction – the state of the art – is certainly not perfect. Let’s hope this story about an advance made by Apple is true.
A few people have asked me about this interesting and entertainig youtube clip – This is not yellow.
It’s worth looking at. It makes the point that when you look at colours on the screen (whether it is your computer screen, your TV or your mobile phone) although you see a full range of colours, all that is there is mixtures of red, green and blue light. In principle this is true – in practice it’s a bit more complicated because the screen doe snot emit just three wavelengths. For practical reasons the RGB primaries on a display are more broad band. Nevertheless, the essence of what is being said is true; when you look at yellow on the screen it is not a single wavelength that you would associate with yellow that is being emitted. Hence, the “This is not yellow”.
However, the clip doesn’t go far enough. It suggests that this is a problem with displays and that when you see a real lemon, for example, you are seeing real yellow because the lemon absorbs all the wavelengths of light except yellow (which is reflected). Sadly this is not true either. Let’s look at the reflectance profile of a typical yellow object. I can’t promise it is a lemon but a lemon would be pretty similar.
What this graph shows are the wavelengths of light along the x-axis and, along the y-axis, the per cent of each wavelength that the yellow object reflects. Notice that it does not absorb all wavelengths excecpt the ones that would be seen as yellow in the spectrum (essentially about 580 nm). Rather, the physical yellow object reflects all wavelengths in the spectrum because the reflectance is greater than zero at all wavelengths. The physical yellow object also absorbs all wavelengths in the spectrum to some extent because the reflectance is less that 100% at all wavelengths. Obviously some wavelengths are reflected more than others. But it isn’t even the wavelengths at about 580 nm that are maximally reflected. The yellow object reflects more red wavelengths than it does yellow wavelengths. So why does the lemon look yellow? For the same reasons that the lemon looks yellow on the screen; because the light being reflected activates the cones in the human visual system in a certain way. So I am not knocking this video – rather, I want to say that it makes a good point about displays but that this point also relates to colours in the subtractive world. It raises the issue of what we mean when we say something is yellow either on a screen or in the physical world.