Psychologically speaking, what is colour?

It is a sensory awareness, having symbolic, associative, synesthetic, and emotional effects on humans.

  • Symbolic Effects. Colour conveys symbolic messages.  Certain colours or groups of colours can symbolize different things to different groups of people.  There may be a group of colours in one’s culture or society that may invoke a certain emotional response different from the same colour grouping on a different cultural population.  Eg: Red, white and blue on the American flag may invoke a certain response on some Americans and different responses on other Americans.  At the same time the French flag’s colour of red, white, and blue may produce entirely different responses to different groups of French people. Another example would be what is symbolized by the colour of mourning (black in western cultures and white in many eastern countries). Symbolic effects of colour can change over time and generations, and no colour symbol has necessarily just one meaning.
Red, White, Blue can mean different things to different Americans
Red, White, Blue can mean entirely different things to different French people
  • Associative Effects. We often assign certain meanings to certain colours in specific applications.  Red on a stop sign, is associated with the urgency to STOP.  If that same stop sign had a yellow background, it would not be as effective to us because we do not associate yellow and stop signs.  This is a world wide association.  These are often learned responses that we have been taught over time.  Another example is the association world wide that the sky is blue.  We are all taught this as children and for our entire lives, associate a clear sky with blue.
  • Synesthetic Effects. Colour has sensory effect on us that can sometimes cause a synesthesia response.  Colour enters our eyes, travels down the optic nerve to the brain and once it travels to our nervous system it sometimes results in a different sensory response.   So for instance, a bright chartreuse green could evoke loud pitch shrill for some people in their ears or a sour taste in their mouth. Therefore, a different sense has responded to the colour we see with our eyes.
Does this colour make you hear a loud shrill ?
or give you a sour taste?
  • Emotional Effects. We all know colour has an emotional response for us, this is no new rocket science and marketers have been using this in colour branding and advertising for years.  Different colours are going to invoke different emotional responses, both positive and negative. Our culture, demographic, personal association, what is marketed to us, what we associate consciously and unconsciously are all factors in the emotional response we may have to a colour.  The bottom line is that emotional response, whether it’s positive or negative will result in an action. So when a designer chooses a colour for a project, whether it’s an architectural space, a web design, a printed ad, or a new fashion collection, it must be considered how the brain uses that stimuli and transforms it into thoughts, feelings, emotions, and finally actions.

Therefore, that sensory response to colour is very POWERFUL- making colour powerful!

Sheri Peterson, IACC, Vice President- IACC-NA

Accredited Colour Consultant/Interior Designer


[email protected]