Choosing “The Right” Color

What is your favorite color? You have undoubtedly been asked this dozens of times. Being a designer, my answer takes a little explaining.

A far more interesting question to ask is, "What is color?" In a world filled with company identities, brochures, signs, and websites, it is remarkable how few businesses ask themselves, "Why do we use this color?"

Clients often have specific colors in mind for any given project. These choices are often based on their answer to the 'favorite color' question. However, when choosing a color in business, the more appropriate question to answer is, "What message does this color communicate?"

According to science, "color is the by-product of the spectrum of light, as it is reflected or absorbed, as received by the human eye and processed by the human brain."

According to design, color is the expression of ideas, emotion, meaning and order. From IBM's Big Blue to UPS's Big Brown, smart businesses have understood the powerful use of color for decades. But just how and why were these colors chosen, and what insight does it hold for your business?

Perhaps Plato had it right in regard to colors: "Even if a man knew he would be foolish in telling, for he could not give any necessary reason, nor indeed any tolerable or probable explanation of them." Foolish or not, in today's sophisticated world of marketing, a quick class in color is critical.

The world is filled with light. Virtually everything interacts with light in one way or another. Part of the interaction between the physical world and the light that envelops it is what we label, for lack of a better term, color.

If you experiment with passing light through a prism, a spectrum will be produced in the form of a rainbow. The prism separates the light into a few of its component parts: the wavelengths of light the human eye is capable of seeing. This rainbow — these wavelengths of light — is what we know as color.

These colors are present in all light that is around you. When this color filled light strikes an object, most of the spectrum is absorbed by the object. However, a fraction of the light will 'bounce' off the object, like a sound wave echoing off a canyon wall. This 'reflected' wavelength of light enters your eyes and your brain interprets and labels it a certain color.

Color is our brain's interpretation of light on surfaces. Color is our ability to see.

Light is actually called the "electromagnetic spectrum"… big words for the types of radiation that make up light. Radiation is basically energy that travels and spreads out as it goes ( light from a flashlight or microwaves from a cooking bean burrito, for example ).

Radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma-rays, etc. These are all part of light. These are all radiations of light's spectrum, just like what we call blue or red. In fact, the visible spectrum of light is the smallest segment of this spectrum that we have identified.

Just think, we are constantly surrounded by a world of color and light that we can not see!

What color 'can' do and 'why' has always been far more interesting than what color is. It is fascinating to anyone who has used color to communicate a message just how effectively this visible spectrum can be used to affect the human mind.

In his 1,400 page treatise on color, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe discovered something crucial in the world of design and marketing: the sensations of color are not just physical phenomena, but they are also shaped by our perception — by the mechanics of vision and the way our brains process information. What we see of an object depends on the object, but also the lighting and crucially: our perception.

Goethe was the first to derive laws of color harmony: ways of characterizing how colors affect us. Why does the red and green of Christmas work so well together and so instantly communicate the message of Christmas? Goethe discovered that the appealing sensation of complimentary colors (like red and green) does not originate physically from the actions of light on our eyes, but perceptually from the actions of our internal visual information system.

In other words, how we interpret the actions of light on a surface is what determines whether a color looks 'good' for any particular use, not the actual color itself. This was a huge breakthrough. We are predisposed to feeling certain emotional responses to certain colors, and these feeling can be mapped out mathematically, not unlike the scales in music that are universally appealing.

Goethe's original proposal was "to marvel at color's occurrences and meanings, to admire and, if possible, to uncover color's secrets." He believed that his map of color was a map of the human mind and he linked each color with certain emotions. To Goethe, it was most important to understand human reaction to color, and this research laid the foundations for all modern color theory and color psychology.

Today, the correlation of colors to emotion and meaning has been demonstrated thoroughly in countless experiments. Each color in the visible spectrum has a detailed analysis of the emotional responses that can be generated by its use.

Companies like IBM and UPS have understood this for decades, and while it would be easy to dismiss their color choices as a random sampling of the "by-products of the spectrum of light," the history, science, and evolution of color argues otherwise.

Choosing a color to communicate a message requires research and knowledge of the message as well as the audience. But equally as important is an understanding of the effects of color on the human psyche. This insight will add depth and meaning to any message, and any business concerned with their image would do well to toss aside their 'favorite' and instead choose the 'right' color for the job.

Michael White

Michael White

Business Specialist at Doc4 Design