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Colors and Emotions - Part 2

by Alex Cosper
August 06, 2019

People understand and react to colors in mysterious ways. Some colors can elicit both positive or negative responses while others lean more in one direction. Most colors, other than gray, are associated with overall positive emotions. That's what years of color research has found, yet scientists still haven't answered some of the deepest questions about the connection between colors, emotions and behavior.

Breaking Down Colors Into Hues

Colors result from light while colors cannot be seen in the absence of light. The basic elements of colors as defined by the Munsell Color System are hues, values (brightness) and chroma (saturation). Hues are the most distinguishing factors for identifying colors, which are measured by wavelengths. Humans are able to tell the difference between red and blue primarily because the hues are far apart on the visible spectrum.

Knowledge about this spectrum goes back centuries when Isaac Newton began using the term in his 1704 ground-breaking book Opticks, about his experiments with how prisms alter white light. Newton initially divided the spectrum into red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet then later indigo. The book contained a color wheel designed by Newton with red on the opposite side of blue and green. In between red and green were orange and yellow. On the other side of the wheel he placed violet and indigo between red and blue. 

Since these first in-depth studies of color through the present, scientists have categorized colors in three groups: principle hues, intermediate hues and achromatic colors.  The five primary hues are red, yellow, green and purple. These colors mix to form other colors known as the five intermediate hues, which are yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue and red-purple. Achromatic colors are white, gray and black.

Since these first in-depth studies of color through the present, scientists have categorized colors in three groups: principle hues, intermediate hues and achromatic colors. The five primary hues are red, yellow, green, blue and purple. These colors mix to form other colors known as the five intermediate hues, which are yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue and red-purple. Achromatic colors are white, gray and black.

Most Exciting and Depressing Colors

Plenty of research has shown that some colors are very exciting to most people while other colors are more relaxing. Generally, red elicits the most amount of excitement while green and blue are the more relaxing and peaceful colors. Green-yellow, however, is sometimes associated with illness. Red, like black, is commonly associated with both positive and negative responses.

These findings have been confirmed in various research studies and scientific academic writing, as published in a 2004 University of Georgia paper titled Relationship Between Color and Emotion: A Study of College Students by Ziera Yunus. The campus studied 98 college students (54 females and 44 males), who were asked to give reasons for their emotional responses to the five primary hues, five intermediate hues and three achromatic colors. Emotions were coded as positive, negative or no emotion. The mean age of the participants was 21.

Results showed that the five principle hues generated the highest positive emotional responses, followed by intermediate hues. The achromatic colors of black, white and gray had the highest negative responses. The overall percentage of positive responses to colors was 62.2% versus 34.2% negative and 3.6% no emotion. 

While blue generally was associated with positive feelings it also evoked feelings of depression. Music associations have become ingrained in culture, as there is no doubt many people think of the musical genre "the blues" when they see the color blue and link it to the feeling or sadness found in many slower blues songs. The achromatic color most associated with depression in the study was gray, while white generated more positive responses than black or gray. 

What Colors Mean

Emotional responses to color vary among individuals based on their personal experiences, but in some cases they can be generalized based on the fact that individuals within a culture often experience the same stimuli due to national media, education and other sources that influence large groups of people.

Color associations can be generalized in marketing with the understanding that it's not an exact science nor do consumers all think or behave the same way. Red typically is associated with dominance and strength, but it can also evoke images of blood and violence. Orange associates with excitement as well as distress. Yellow can range from cautious to cheerful while green can feel as positive as a relaxing vacation on a tropical island or as negative as guilt. Blue is linked to comfort and security while purple is often perceived as dignified. Black associates with strength and darkness.

Another way for graphic designers to view colors for packaging inspiration is with temperature terminology such as warm and cool. Warm colors include red, orange and yellow while the cooler colors are blue and green, which can influence perceptions of increased spaciousness. 

In many ways colors mean whatever designers want them to mean by assigning specific emotions to them in marketing campaigns. But every marketer should be aware that every individual already has built-in perceptions and emotions about colors. As it's clear colors influence purchasing decisions

Continue with the third part of the series on colors and emotions. Read the complete series.

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References

[1] "Relationship between color and emotion : a study of college students (2004)" ,by Naz Kaya.

[2] "Analysis_of_cross-cultural color emotion (2007)" , by Xiao-Ping Gao , John H Xin, Tetsuya Sato and Aran Hansuebsai.  

[3] "Effects of Color on Emotions (1994)" , by Patricia Valdez and Albert Mehrabian. 

Topics: Metal Packaging, Design & Emotions