Do you remember mood rings? Those intuitive rings that change colour depending on your temperament, which you could buy for just a few dollars? The magic behind this hue-shifting phenomenon, despite my wishful thinking, is not based on my emotion, but caused by changes in body heat. Yet I couldn’t help but be affected psychologically by its visual cues.
In nature, colour is used as a communication tool, one that does everything from attracting a potential mate to scaring off predators. Because here’s the thing: colour is not just visual. It has an innate impact on our emotions. A fact that plays a significant role in design. (Can you, for example, identify these 12 iconic brands based on their unique shades alone?)
“Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” — Claude Monet
Wolfgang’s Wonderful Wheel of Colours
The research into colour is nothing new and can be traced back centuries. Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, published in 1810, illustrates a colour wheel and the psychological impacts different tones have on our thoughts and emotions.
Schön (beautiful); Edel (noble); Gut (good); Nützlich (useful); Gemein (mean, common); Unnöthig (unnecessary)
Goethe’s research laid the building blocks for future research into colour. Casting our eye over the logos of today’s major brands, we can better understand their choices as ways to trigger certain emotions. Coca-Cola, Nintendo and Lego use red to excite whereas GE, Dell and IBM use blue, which is associated with trust and dependability.
Why do two colours, put one next to the other, sing? Can one really explain this? No. Just as one can never learn how to paint. — Pablo Picasso
But how do we actually perceive colour? As light enters the eye through the lens, different wavelengths are reflected off whatever you are looking at. Retinas in the back of the eye receive light and send neural connections to the brain, which corresponds those signals as an image in different colours.
All this is done instantaneously without you having to worry about it, which is a good thing too, as I’m getting a headache just trying to explain it. What we often forget is that the colour spectrum as we know it is limited to what is visible to the human eye.
The Superpowers of Wooly Lemurs
Mother Nature, it seems, has reserved some of her coolest superpowers for other creatures. Some animals have developed advanced colour receptors, which allow them to see rich colours in the dark. In a recent study, several species of nocturnal wooly lemurs seemed to be able to pick out a particular shade of green at night, which signals young leaves with the highest protein content.
“I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.” —Winston Churchill
Which reminded me of a TED talk by Neil Harbisson. Check it out, because Neil is quite a character. He was born completely colour-blind, but is now able to ‘hear’ colour through an audible frequency device attached to his head. Sci-fi stuff.
But what excited me most about this video was that through his colour-to-sound electromagnetic device, he was able to hear colours that the human eye cannot perceive, like infrared and ultraviolet.
Which got me thinking about multi-sensory experiences and how it would impact design. Like Neil, if you could hear sounds hidden in shades, how would a designer create a music poster? Or if you could taste colour and sample a menu before ordering your meal, what would that menu look like? Food for thought.