Experience of Color

Does everyone have the same experience of color? When you and I look at the same apple, do we see the red? These questions are impossible to answer.

Each person’s perception of color is entirely unique. Science – which is based on analyzing observable phenomena – has no means to determine whether people’s color experiences are the same.

Of course, we both say the apple is “red” but how do we know we mean the same thing by that word? We each have learned that the word “red” is applied to that color. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we are having the same experience. It is interesting to note that some people who are color blind or color deficient have learned these social conventions so well that they are not aware that they aren’t seeing all the colors everyone else sees.

Do people in all cultures experience color in the same way? Again, there is no way to know for sure about the individual perceptual experiences of other people. In 1969, anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Kay published Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (University of California at Berkeley). Their research showed that people across cultures use language that makes the same color distinctions found in Western cultures. Other studies show that people throughout the world put colors together in the same groups. However, the aesthetic or emotional connotation of color does change across cultures. Western culture, for example, associates the color black with death. But in Japan, death is associated with white. This is an important distinction. It is helpful to be aware of your client’s background in order to choose colors that will be meaningful and appropriate to their home or workspace.

Color Temperature

Colors convey a sense of temperature and are referred to as “warm” or “cool.” Warm colors appear to advance (move toward the viewer) and cool colors appear to recede (move away from the viewer).

The terms used to describe color temperature are defined by the following:

  • Hot: Fully saturated red
  • Warm: All colors containing red
  • Cool: All colors containing blue
  • Cold: Fully saturated

Color Personality

The use of color in a room conveys a sense of personality. While some of these color personalities vary from country to country, in general, the following applies:

  • Red: Excited
  • Pink: Sensitive or feminine
  • Yellow: Happy, playful, energetic
  • Blue: Calm
  • Green: Generous
  • Brown: Down to earth, solid
  • Orange Outgoing, fun

Environmental Affect of Color

Since we all recognize subconsciously that natural light is the source of all life, the first rule of developing a color scheme is to use as much natural light as possible. When helping your customer design a color scheme, be sure to ask how much natural light is available in the room. Consider what the room will be used for, how much natural light the room has and how they want to feel in the room.

Color can be used to change the effect of an environment. For example, a cool room with little natural light can be made to seem warmer and brighter through the use of warm colors like reds, yellows and oranges. A warm room can be cooled down with blues and greens.

Color Symbolism

Colors have different meanings in different cultures, so no rule of color symbolism will work across all cultures. We talked about black in the West and white in Japan as the color of death. In China, red is the most widely used color and means happiness and joy. Historically, yellow, gold and purple were used by the Chinese royal family to indicate wealth, power and majesty.

The following list gives a very general idea of what colors mean in Asia and in Western cultures. But bear in mind that these meanings are not exact and vary from culture to culture.

RedHappiness, marriage, prosperityPower
PinkMarriage, trust (Korea)Feminity
YellowProtection against evil, blessings Happiness
GreenEternity, family, harmony, health peace, posterityEnvironment, nature, calm
BlueSelf cultivation, wealthHonesty, trustworthiness
WhiteChildren, helpful people, marriage mourning, peace, purity, travelPurity, marriage, goodness
GoldStrength, wealthWealth, endurance, best
GrayHelpful people, travelSolid, sensible, gloom
BlackCareer, evil influences, knowledge, mourning, penance, self-cultivationMourning, evil, sophistication

In the West, combinations of colors also have meaning. For instance, in the United States, red on its own (in a necktie or a woman’s suit) means power. But put red with white and green, and its Christmas! Red with orange, yellow and brown means autumn. And red with white and blue means patriotism.

Main & Accent Colors

To maintain balance, color schemes benefit when you choose one main color and one or two accent colors. The accent colors can be painted (on trim or a feature wall, for instance) or be included in the furniture, drapery and knick-knacks in the room. When considering color schemes, think about ways of maintaining color balance and decide which will be the main color and which will be the accent colors.