We are all psychologically affected by colours. Beyond the physics that do have a slight contribution in influencing our moods and behaviour, there is much more below the surface that has to do with us as humans and our past experiences with colours.
When building a website or anything else that puts us out there in the world, there is one question that arises: will the colours I picked be perceived by my audience the way I perceive them? Or put in a more cheeky question: are you feeling the same red as I’m feeling? In order to be on the same page as your audience, let’s take a look on how humans choose colours that pleases them and then see how you can get the best out of them for your digital presence.
Choosing your colour — body versus memories
Colour preferences tend to change as people age, most of them based especially on interactions and experiences that involve a certain colour.
During childhood, you have little memories that could build on our perception on colour – you are a blank canvas so to say. What else could you rely on more than on our body, to be more exact, our eyes? So the young you is more attracted by colours that stimulate your eyes – explaining it in a more nerdy way, that might have to do with colour receptors (cones) in our eyes: warm colours, from red to yellow, and tints of green are triggering stronger signals because of these cones’ sensitivity and distribution.
“The idea is that the more experience‐based feedback that a person receives about a particular colour that is associated with a positive experience, the more the person will tend to like that colour” – Psychology Today
Yet again, if it were only to take into consideration the physical effects that light has on people, we would end up liking the same colours – but we’re more complex than that and that’s where psychology kicks in. As you grow older, memories and experiences start adding up and shaping your personality. While living these experiences, it is near impossible not to deal with colour, and the context in which they appear (pleasant or distasteful) is important in modelling your preferences.
Take this examples:
If you were raised near the sea and you remember yourself playing near the water, you are more prone to like blue because of the recurrent pleasant memories it built up in you.
If you interacted with blue in a different medium, let’s say a long stay in the hospital and there were blue lights around, it might not be in your top preferences if the reason you were there wasn’t a fortunate one. We might as well say that your preferred colour is a summary of some experiences that you enjoyed.
Photographers for example, are able to convey a lot of feeling through color and the way they work them together. A good photographer though does not rely on color alone — composition, candid pictures, lighting and shadows, backgrounds all play a very heavy role in photography. More so, given that they know that colors can get perceived differently you’ll find that most photography themes actually feature monochrome shots, to bring out the best qualities of the artist without requiring the color to have a direct impact.
How do people pick their colour?
Some people know their favourite colour from the start and they’re happy with that – easy‐peasy for them. Others might need a reversed approach: how do I describe myself and what colours are associated with my traits?
One fast solution would be colour dictionaries: a list of colours and their meanings – go through all of them, read their descriptions and stop at the one that fits you. This may not be far from what’s true to yourself, but seem flawed to me because:
- They are still written by people – people that also have their own unique, different experiences about moods like calm, energising, powerful, passionate, joyful, secure. They might overlap with yours, but slight nuances can shift the perspective.
- They are based much more on how our body reacts to certain colours – and ignore an important factor: each individual’s past experiences that shape colour perception and can overwrite sometimes physical reactions . In a way, this is covering up the uncertainty of colour interpretation and the risk that the author might be slightly biased when creating the colour dictionary.
“These themes easily evoke discussions without end, since verbal reactions to the associations with colour differ vastly from person to person” – Josef Albers, Interaction of Color
So, instead of looking outwards to what other people are writing about colours, why not go inwards and see what is actually cooking inside you. Find those experiences that you found enjoyable, then search some simple and innocent cues in your memories: objects, landscapes, people, scenes.
A fun way to pick a colour that suits you is to put your memories on the table, just like photographs: your favourite outfit, your favourite place to relax, a screenshot from a movie that moved you, a place you liked during childhood.
Take actual pictures of them or even draw them. Put them together on a table or open them all at once on your computer screen. Extract at most 3 colours (to keep it simple), isolate them from the photos. Look at them and ask yourself questions as:
- Would you want to see these colours around every day?
- Would you wear them for a month?
- Would you like those colours in your house or surroundings?
Catch yourself saying “yes” too many times and you have a winner. If not, search on, play around, keep discovering. 🙂
Are you feeling the same red as I am feeling?
As discussed until now, you associate colours to pleasant emotions that experiences feed you. What about the others? They surely have their own, different moments tied to certain feelings. That means that colour perception could also be slightly changed (recall the example with the sea and the hospital mentioned earlier in the article).
Then how can you be sure that you’re feeling the same red as I am feeling? Is there any guarantee that you will get the cues of my website that I am bubbly and energetic just because I use orange and pink? Yes and no.
As abyssal as the gap between you and the others seems, there are still common grounds in our colour perception systems. If it weren’t for these, we might as well roam around ignoring colours and interacting with our environments based on our other senses.
- The physics of our eyes is, to some extent, the same for most of us – The optics behind our eyes is rock solid science that humans “speak”, excepting those who suffer from colour vision deficiencies (in which case we’ll have to find other ways through which we can express ourselves and be understood). Up to a point, red will still trigger a more intense impulse in your system.
- Our experiences won’t ever perfectly match, but they can overlap - Even if we like to think that every place we dwell in has it’s own spirit and uniqueness, we can still find elements and events around us that are common with other places other people live in.
- The green of the woods might make us both feel energetic if we’re outdoorsy people, but it doesn’t have to be the same forest you roamed through while a teenager. You’ll still have a base audience that is valuable to you, because the experiences you both value have also some common colours attached to them.
So, as much as each of our colour preferences are modelled by what you experience through your life, you can still bridge the (not so big actually) gap between us and the others.
As social beings, we are in a constant search for approval from our peers, and colour is one way we send signals, then wait to see if anyone “hears” us as we are. Yet again, it seems that we can’t have it all because of how we build our colour preference systems.
It would be too hard and energy consuming to find the colour combination that goes straight to the feeling you want to convey to all the people that will interact with your website. Just imagine interviewing them all and asking “What colour makes you feel empowered?”. The list of colours you’ll get will be diverse, but in that list you’ll also surely find the one that makes you feel empowered.
So why not take the “shortcut”, be true to yourself, and pick the one that hits your chord first and see afterwards with whom it resonates? In the end, we enjoy having around people that are on the same wavelength with us and we get the best synergy from these types of connections. As for reaching much broader audience, it is much of an innocent gamble that we play in the realm of colours, even if we want it or not.
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