What are the main functions of colour?

Let’s review some main functions of colour. No new rocket science here, just a quick good refresher for those who are colour enthusiasts. These functions are for the application of colour not just in interiors, but also graphic design, web design, colour communication, colour used in marketing, fashion, textiles or really anywhere colour is used with a sense and purpose. These functions are in no particular order, and some points are fairly obvious.

  • It aids in orientation

Colour is a direction finder, a way finder, it steers us where we need to go.  Hospitals are designed with coloured signage or direction finders so people know where to go. Same with parking garages or floor indicators on elevators.  The London Underground has utilized colours for decades on their maps so riders can easily identify the different lines, no language barriers with colour!  But, did you know that 4 colours are optimal for way finding?  People start getting confused if having to memorize more than 4 colours and we are typically more drawn to warm colours for way finding than cool colours.

Map of London’s underground tube and it’s coloured lines
  • It helps with order, differentiation, and clear visual signals

Colour can clearly help organize, it shows differences among objects, and can give us clear visual signals.  Red, yellow, and green are clearly signalized on stop lights.  Toddlers and pre schoolers are taught to organize their space or clean up their activities with coloured boxes or tubs.  Again, there is no language barrier with colour.

  • Signals

Red flashing lights signal to get our attention! Different coloured lights on runways are used by pilots to relay different messages for air traffic taxing and control. Colour is the most immediate sensory response and again with no language barrier.

  • Distinguishes individuals, groups, teams, cultures

People are distinguished by colour. Our sports teams, our schools and colleges, clubs, organizations, companies- they all have their individualized colours.  We associate red, white and blue with Americans because of their flag, yet we don’t associate red, white, and blue to the French and their flag is also red, white, and blue. It’s a simply a cultural association for Americans. Colour gives people a sense of identity. Not only are team players identified with their colours, but more importantly- the fans.

  • Conveys messages and symbols

Colours are symbolic and relay messages.  We all know that certain cultural meanings for certain colours convey messages and these messages can both be positive or negative.  Red in the western world can typically send a message of both anger and passion, but in some eastern cultures like China, red conveys a different message of joy or happiness. So it then symbolizes different meanings to different cultural groups.

Red Chinese lanterns
  • Points out special functions

Anything that that needs a special function highlighted or emphasized, colour can be used.  Think of coloured tabs or buttons for filing systems or colour coding to highlight an object. We highlight important text in reading, and we use different colours for graphing details in order to emphasize a point and as noted above, then convey a message.

Coloured Bar Graph
  • It’s an image factor

Anyone with a black or gold credit card knows this. 

Black, gold, or platinum?
  • Is a marketing factor

This is mainly used in graphic design and branding, not so much in interior design. We all know these companies by their brand and they market themselves with their distinctive colour(s)- Tiffany’s distinctive blue box, Harrods’s green, Coke’s red, Harley Davidson’s orange and black.

The famous Tiffany blue box
  • Influences the effect of objects in a space

Colour can set the tone and mood for objects and surfaces in an architectural space. Which is more inviting to sit in- a warm brown leather sofa or a white one? The tone and mood of a room can set by the colour of the sofa.

Brown or white?
  • Interprets an environment

Colour can help us understand an environment and interpret how it should function.  Is a space to be friendly or serious? Is the colour of that space sending a serious or friendly message?  A room with a navy blue wall will interpret a more serious message than an warm orange wall.

Meeting room has a fun vibe. rb2 Offices. Courtesy of Pinterest
  • Supports the function of a building or area and the tasks being performed in that space

Colours in an area of a building or space support that area’s purpose or function. Energizing colours (reds, oranges, yellows) will support the function of a gym or place we want to get people moving and calming colours (greyed blues or greens) will support the function of a waiting area or dentist’s office where we want people to be less stressed or relaxed.

Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, Chicago IL- HDR, Gensler, Clive Wilkinson Architects and EGG Office 

The purpose of the info here is just a refresher, a reminder to designers, colour consultants or anyone who creates or designs with colour, to think of all the multi-facets of it’s application. Colour is not just about fun or decoration (even though this is important too!)- it has many important functions. Each of these points can be expanded considerably, and can be dived into much deeper. So start by digging deeper when choosing colour, figure out it’s function at the beginning of your project. It may be more complex than choosing what might look good or feel right and remember, enjoy the process!

Note, this info was referenced from: IACC-NA Seminar 1 manual- Color- Environment- Human Reaction, Frank H Mahnke 2003, 2010

Sheri Peterson, IACC, Vice President- IACC-NA

Accredited Colour Consultant/Interior Designer


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