Tracy / Colour Psychology

October 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

In this lecture with Tracy we looked at colour, how it is used within society, how it differs from culture to culture, typical conventions, emotions and feelings we relate with certain colours, and the general theory of colour.

We began the lecture by writing down what we felt and what springs to mind with different colours, these are mine:

  • Blue – sea, cold, most used colour, rain, sky, feeling blue
  • Yellow – happiness, sunshine, summer, beach
  • Red – anger, frustration, danger, warm, passion, love, blood
  • White – winter, tranquility, peace, pure
  • Orange – summer, fire, halloween
  • Green – jealousy, nature, organic, bud, illness
  • Black – darkness, winter mornings & waking up, sleek design
  • Purple – majestic, quality, importance, purple haze
  • Grey – sadness, glum, boring, depression, England

To be honest, I don’t really have any real memories that I relate with colours.

As a graphic designer, I need to understand colour in context. to learn about colour theory refer to Colour – Further Reading for PDF files.

Human beings can see 7,000,000 colours, made up of primary, secondary and tertiary, and everything in between by combining these colours, creating the vast colour range we’re able to witness. The tone of colour is the intensity, or depth, of the colour. When you increase the saturation of yellow, it saturates to an even lighter colour, where as others do not.

Kathy Lamancusa colour study (1950s)

Orlagh O’Brien – Illustrating how you feel


David McCandless performed a study about the relativity of colour in society and different cultures (infographic diagram below), and found that people all over the world have a pretty general agreement on colour and the things they represent, or this was present in several colours anyway, these being black, white and red, mainly. Black and white are the most recognised colours internationally and come first in most cultures, everyone knows black to represent maximum darkness, and white – maximum lightness. Red follows in third after black and white, it’s the oldest colour in civilisation, it’s a powerful colour having the largest wavelength, this means we see this, and focus, quickly, that’s why it symbolises ‘stop’, ‘danger’ and ‘warning’ pretty much globally, Red is the second must used colour in cultures after blue, 77% of flags mainly have red, red was also once the second most expensive colour, after purple.


An Icon of the colour red is Santa Clause, made famously red by Coca-Cola, where as early Santa’s were a multitude of colours, but in modern cultures (starting with America) we depict Santa as this big red jolly man, Americans in particular took a huge liking to this, Coca-Cola used every advertising trick in the book, and they’ve shown how successful it is – we all know it’s Christmas when we see Coca-Cola adverts! Another famous example of the powerful use of red is from the film ‘Schindlers List’ – the whole film is filmed in black and white, with the exception of this scene (below) where a little girl’s coat is in colour, red, having a powerful impact on the audience, emotions come into play here also.

This picture demonstrates how colour affects us psychologically:


Contextualising colour in society

In different societies and cultures we make colours mean things, for various reasons:

  • There was a big problem in a particular college, where projectors were being stolen and used locally, these projectors were made orange so they could be easily identified, therefore the rate at which they were being stolen significantly dropped.
  • Prison outfits are predominantly orange – they’re very distinctive, originally used in Guantanamo Bay to signify a non compliant prisoner, and white being compliant, later orange became the norm
    • Protestors against Guantanamo Bay are wearing orange jump suits, making them symbolic for different reasons.

Colour is a very important factor to consider when designing, as colour can mean many different things from place to place, culturally. For this reason you can’t simply assume what the colour represents in different places, you first need to contextualise it e.g. black can be so many different things: wedding, funeral, death, work etc.

Other colours and their connotations and meanings:


– religion, higher power, sun, higher association (agreed on across all* cultures)

– in contrast to happiness: illness (jaundice, urine, vomit), warning (bees, wasps, bugs)

– culturally: China – adult movies = yellow movies (like blue movies here) / Japan – courage / Russia – yellow house = insane house (asylum) / Mexico – death (but death is celebrated there) / yellow star – Jews in Nazi Germany

Olafur Eliasson – the Weather Project – mediation of colour, indicating the power of colour and what it can make us do.


– life, nature, moss, camouflage, freshness, curse & blessing of youth

– decay, envy, nausea, poison, jealousy

– Today it often means: sustainability, ecology, environmental, green has become  a verb for these things.

– culturally: green traffic lights are universal / Israel = bad news / Japan – blue and green are the same word / China – a green hat means a mans wife has been cheating on him


– cool, solitude, tranquility

– isolation, melancholy, anxiety, inertia, depression, blue movies

– culturally: Russia – homosexuality / Belgium – blue is for baby girls and pink is for baby boys / blue is a big corporate colour, mainly banks due to it being the worlds favourite colour, so it’s widely used everywhere, where as they rarely use green because of its connotations with environmental stuff, quite liberal views.


– luxury, sensuality,

– mixture of two opposing colours (red+blue) making it sometimes difficult in psychology

– culturally: America+Japan – high quality

Rainbow trapped for the first time

Contrasting and complimenting colours – another important factor to consider when using colour in design

– hue of colours can completely change when mixing contrasting colours e.g. same colour on various different background colours has the ability to drastically alter the feel/look of a colour

– in typography too – different backgrounds colours can make type look different e.g. weight, stroke, balance.

– proximity – how close colours are to one an other can change the look also



‘BLINK’ A Horizon Guide –  Synaesthesia = 13.50 +

‘SUPERHUMANS ‘ Tetrochromatics = people with 4 colour cones

Chromaphobia (book)


The film ‘Hero’ has an amazing use of colour, in fact, most films by Yimou Zhang do, watch this scene and observe for yourself:

FILM; Cracking the Color Code of ‘Hero’

Published: August 15, 2004

THE martial-arts epic ”Hero,” which opens on Aug. 27, is the product of an unlikely collaboration between two dazzling visual stylists: the Chinese director Zhang Yimou and the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle. That they had never before worked together is not surprising. Mr. Zhang (”Raise the Red Lantern,” ”Shanghai Triad”), a former cameraman, is known for the quiet beauty of his carefully composed shots; Mr. Doyle (”In the Mood for Love,” ”Chungking Express”), who prides himself on his ability to improvise with the camera on his shoulder, prefers, as he says to ”find the film” as he is shooting it. Mr. Zhang makes still lifes; Mr. Doyle is an action painter.

Why then did Mr. Zhang pick Mr. Doyle to shoot ”Hero,” his first attempt at a martial-arts movie with digitized action sequences in the style of ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? According to Mr. Zhang, it was because Mr. Doyle is known for pushing film to its limits in order to produce extraordinary hues, and Mr. Zhang’s plan was to divide ”Hero” into five sections, each dominated by a single colour – there was no special meaning behind it…

RED Love Story

BLUE Water/Light/Life – for pure contrast

WHITE – saviour/ redemption/ ultimate sacrifice

GREEN colour of knowledge and memory – used as flashbacks – ran out of colours – “your not going to do anything in orange or pink!” Mr. Doyle 2004


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