Six Basic Influences of How Humans Process and Experience Colour

Frank Mahnke, was a colour revolutionary. A colour guru and expert.  I did not get the chance to meet him in person, but may of my colour colleagues could count him as their colour mentor and educator.  The colour association I and many of my colleagues are members of is the IACC-NA (International Association of Color Consultants-North America, and full disclosure, I serve as VP on the board. We are a chapter of the parent world wide organization (IACC) that was established in Holland in 1957. It was branched out to the US in the early 1990’s and Frank established the education component- IACC Seminars for Color and Environment in San Diego, CA in 1991.  It is now known as the IACC Academy Branch USA: Seminars for Color and Environment.

Taken from the website, IACC members “are colour professionals who have chosen to become more educated about color, its proper application, and the human response it elicits. Knowledge, credibility, and validity set IACC-NA members apart from other color professionals by our commitment to integrating the art and science of color.”

One of Frank’s fundamental teachings was the understanding how human beings process colour. He created this pyramid of influences for us to easily see and recognize how we process or experience colour- from a primal base level up to our personal relationships with colour.

Here’s a quick explanation of the pyramid from the bottom level, moving up.

  • We as humans have a biological reaction to certain colour stimuli.  These are the reactions unlearned and out of our control because they happen naturally. 

Eg:  Leaves turn green in the spring because the biological process of photosynthesis.  Most of us react in a positive or uplifted way because spring is here.  This happens year after year, whether we want it to our not.

Spring leaves make us happy!
  • As humans, we have a collective unconscious reaction (or predisposition) to colour.  These are reactions we are hard wired for and have no control over the behaviour.

Eg: We all associate Red with blood, cross culturally and universally.  No one is ever taught this, we all know it because we are hard wired for it.

Red Blood Cells
  • Conscious symbolism and associations.  These are our learned responses to colour.

Eg: We learn the sky and water are blue by being told from the time we first understand language. This is now a learned association we have with the colour blue.

Most every child’s drawings have blue sky and water
  • Cultural influences and mannerisms.  One’s culture gives us certain colour associations.

Eg:  Red is associated as a traditional colour for brides in many (not all) Asian counties, while white is the associated traditional colour for brides in North America.

Red as a traditional colour for this Eastern bride
  • We are influenced by what is marketed to us through fashion, styles, and trends.

Eg: Every year companies market to and flood us with their “colour or colours of the year or season”.  We are then often influenced by choosing those colours for what we wear, what we paint our walls, or even what colour our cell phone covers might be.

Every year we are marketed to with new trend colours
  • Finally, we all have a personal relationship to colour. Some of us are blue lovers, some of us are green lovers, some of us are neither.

Eg:  What colour was the kitchen you grew up in?  Does this have an effect on whether you are a partial to a colour or not?

Does the colour of the kitchen you grew up give you happy memories or not?

Having the knowledge of this colour pyramid helps us understand that colour is complex on many levels. If professional colour consultants or designers are choosing colours for products, clothing, or perhaps spaces, they need to fully understand the human experience around colour.  This is just one part of understanding the beautiful language of colour!

Sheri Peterson, IACC, Vice President- IACC-NA

Accredited Colour Consultant/Interior Designer


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