Design for Life: For the Love of Color: Explore Your Response to Colors

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Colors capture our attention.

Color is like sex: powerful, magnetic, used to sell things and impossible to understand–although lots of people pretend to. We respond instantly and primally to color. It can seduce or repel us, bring us joy or sadness, relax us or drive us into a frenzy. Color strongly influences first impressions. Research by the Institute for Color Research shows that we make subconscious judgments about a person, environment or product within 90 seconds of initial viewing–and 62 to 90 percent of that assessment is based on color alone.

Color’s power

Color can make bland food taste good, a healthy person feel sick or a cool room feel warmer. Colored newspaper ads generate up to 50 percent more inquiries than black-and-white ones. Brightly painted classrooms can improve learning ability. Sports teams with a black stripe on their uniforms are more likely to accrue penalties than teams wearing other colors. Yet how many of us are aware of color’s constant effects?

I love color. I swoon to forest greens, brilliant oranges and cobalt blues. I’ve run afoul of the fashion industry, and been told by spiritual teachers that I shouldn’t wear colors I adore. What’s going on in this world of color, and who decides?

Who’s the expert?

Color is highly personal. It doesn’t even exist outside our minds. The colors we perceive are a function of light wavelengths that relay signals to the brain, where they’re deciphered.

Our response to color is complex; physiological reactions combine with cultural conditioning and personal experience to give us each a unique color lexicon. This makes it difficult to predict the effect of a given color on a particular person.

For my first book, Healing Environments, I researched how we respond to color. I repeatedly read that warm colors (red, orange and yellow) are stimulating; cool colors (blue and violet) are relaxing; and green is the neutral midpoint. It turns out things aren’t that simple.

After 10 years of reviewing thousands of studies, color researchers Cherie and Kenneth R. Fehrman (authors of Color: The Secret Influence) have found little or no support for these oft-repeated myths. Most of the studies involved few subjects or no replication, and few controlled for the effects of lighting, surrounding colors or color sample variations. Study results were often contradictory. Although there is clearly a connection between color and mood, the Fehrmans found that “the arousal value of a color lies in its purity, not in the color itself.”

Take back your color experience

Where does this leave you? With liberty to experience and use color however you wish. You can free yourself from color trends, fears, myths and manipulation, and reclaim your relationship with color. Throw away what you’ve been told about which colors are good for you, and savor your own personal color experience.

Pay attention to the colors around you–and your responses to them. I did this recently while driving in the country on a cloudy day. I was surrounded by an array of greens, with touches of browns, grays and earthy reds. The colors made my heart glow. The next day I was waiting in line at the DMV: dull grays, with a token wainscot of dull teal. No wonder I’ve never enjoyed being there.

The long and short of it is this: Always trust how you feel about a color more than what someone says about it.

Explore your response to colors

Lots of people –scientists, healers, designers, fashion mavens–want to understand how color affects us. Nobody is more interested than the people who want to sell us stuff. “The powers
of colorful persuasion are often subliminal, and the would-be buyer, viewer or customer is not always aware they are being persuaded to buy,” says color consultant Leatrice Eiseman. Color makes promises that the product wearing it may or may not keep.

Surrounding red meat with green accents makes it appear redder, which sells more meat. Restaurants use orange, vermilion, and pale greens, yellows and browns to attempt to increase appetites. Package designers employ color to convey a sense of how a product will taste, feel, smell or sound. They use it to symbolize prestige, earthiness, honesty–whatever appeals to the emotions before the rational mind kicks in.

• Close your eyes and imagine red. Feel it, breathe it, surround yourself with it. What images or sensations come to mind? Do this with each color in the spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet), and you’ll have a good foundation for knowing your color world.

• What are your favorite colors? How do they make you feel? What associations do you have with them?

• What colors do you dislike? Are they linked to particular memories?

• Notice how color changes as light changes: indoors and out, at different times of the day and year.

• Look closely at a colored item or a landscape and count how many variations of color it embodies.

Carol Venolia is an architect and co-author of  Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House.