HUE CLUE — The Psychology of Color — Part I

10 Jan

“When in doubt, wear red…

– Bill Blass

There is certainly no lack of color for Spring/Summer 2011.  What is interesting, however, is that unlike past seasons, only clear intense tones were presented – nothing soft and understated, demure or subtle.  These colors possess a vigor that seem to be intent on provoking a particular response from the consumer – powerful tones that energize and strengthen, imbue a sense of positivity and hope that is much needed at the moment.

The psychology behind this energetic use of color is fascinating.  Physiologically human beings respond to color in both visual display and fashion faster and more strongly than any other aspect of design – line, shape, scale, texture or symmetry.

Yet the effect color has on us is as much genetic (red tends to excite more neuron activity in the brain, blue or green less so) as it is cultural (tonality plays a huge part in various religious and spiritual practices throughout the world – one society often views the same hue as having a completely different significance than their cultural counterpart).  For the most part, however, the human response to different colors is universal, and in turn generates the same unconscious reactions.


In art and design, color is divided into three basic families:  Warm, Cool and Neutral.  Warm colors include reds, yellows and oranges.  Cool colors are comprised of blues, greens and violet/purples.  Neutrals are a sort of ‘non-color’ color family – clean, understated tones like white, black, beige, grey and brown.

Warm colors are energizing and engaging – they tend to make one feel lighter, happier, more expansive; reminding us of warmth, sunshine and the fire of passion.  Shades of red, orange and yellow do other, more unexpected things – they make us work harder, move faster and increase the appetite.

Walk into any major fast-food chain and look around – warm, bright color schemes abound.  This isn’t done so that you feel all happy and fuzzy when you enter.  It’s done to make your eyes bigger than your stomach and get you in and out as quickly as possible.  It’s difficult to sit in a noisy, brightly-lit space with red and yellow furnishings and have a relaxing meal.  But then, you aren’t supposed to – these colors are chosen not only to increase your appetite once you step in the door, they’re chosen to make you wolf your food down and get out of there as quickly as possible so that you clear a table for the next unsuspecting ‘Super-Sizer’ to sit down.

This is also why stop signs, traffic lights and fire trucks are red – they’re designed to catch your attention and evoke an immediate and impulsive reaction.  Imagine a stop sign in a pale blue or a fire engine the color of an Easter egg – not very evocative, is it?

Cool colors have the opposite effect – they tend to mellow and calm, evoking images of blue skies, green grass, calm seas and spring-like days.  It’s not surprising that the overwhelming majority of people questioned state blue as their favorite color – its soothing, meditative properties tend to make both situations and individuals more approachable and less threatening.  Blue is often used in clinical, therapeutic and medical settings as it has the benefit of calming patients subconsciously.  Stylistically it’s often a choice made to engender oneself to others.

One must be cautions with blues, though – the wrong shade of blue can easily feel cold, moody and aloof.  Remember — no one has ever claimed to have ‘the pinks’, but an entire musical genre is dedicated to singing ‘the blues’.

Neutral colors can also be tricky to work with, and depending on the tonality, can be anything from rich and sophisticated to chilly and antiseptic.  A crisp white shirt is a symbol of classic style, whereas in design settings it can be quite sterile.  Hospitals are predominantly white for this very reason – it’s not just to make it easier to wash the blood off the walls (kidding) –  it’s to give you, the visitor or patient, the unconscious impression that everything is as clean and safe as possible.

We gravitate towards black in our wardrobe so consistently not simply for the fact that it’s classic and flattering, but because in many ways it’s the sartorial equivalent of armor – black is not only easy to mix with and difficult to get dirty, it transmits the impression that the wearer is confident, bold and sophisticated.  This in turn makes the viewer see the wearer as someone who is both formidable and desirable.

Interestingly, it was not until 1926 when Chanel introduced her first ‘little black dress’ for evening that black ceased to be a color worn only for mourning the dead, but an acceptable shade to be donned by the fashionable mainstream for any time or occasion.

Greys, beiges and browns can be murky and uninviting but when done correctly, are utterly stunning.  Worn together, beige and black is a timeless mainstay of many wardrobes.  Dark greys and browns are the perfect foil for otherwise too-bright tones — some of the most striking tonal combinations are espresso brown with bright fuchsia or emerald green; steel grey with scarlet or cobalt blue.


As universal as our response to color is, there are two other diverse aspects of tonal psychology that must be taken into consideration – the breadth of world culture and the uniqueness of individual experience.  In essence, it is a question of nature versus nurture.

Culturally, how we perceive certain colors is dependent on our location geographically.  White in western cultures is seen as something pure, untarnished, virginal.  Because this allusion to the chasteness of white is so powerful it has, since the 1820s, been the only acceptable color for a bride to wear for her wedding ceremony.

In many Asian cultures, however, white is symbolic of death and the color of mourning.  It would be unheard of for a bride in many Eastern religions to wear white for her wedding – where instead she dons scarlet red – a color that is felt to bring luck, fortune and fertility.  (Imagine the reaction in the United States if a bride glided down the aisle in a bright red taffeta dress and veil.)

In Eastern religions orange is a color that represents a healing calm and enlightenment – hence the garb of Buddhist monks.  As evidenced earlier, western culture hardly finds this color relaxing.

In ancient Rome purple was a symbol of the hierarchy of the senate.  Any individual who was not a member of the senate was prohibited to wear the color upon penalty of death.

This propensity for purple later found its way into many Christian religions, where garments in that hue are reserved for only the highest of holy holidays.


In Part II next week I’ll cover the more personal aspects color on the subconscious, and delve into how to wear these new and powerful colors for Spring/Summer 2011

Be well, all – and thank you for reading



5 Responses to “HUE CLUE — The Psychology of Color — Part I”

  1. Karen Kaplan January 11, 2011 at 5:53 PM #

    Hey Chris! You know I love color!

  2. Jen S January 14, 2011 at 6:57 PM #

    what do you think of Pantone’s new color for 2011, Honeysuckle? I like it. Pretty girly though.

    • Christopher Forte January 25, 2011 at 4:20 AM #

      Hmm — gonna have to check it out — I will let you know…

  3. Allison January 18, 2011 at 1:09 AM #

    I have to tell you that I enjoyed this entry immensely. Very well written, (which isn’t surprising) and I found it fascinating. Learned some things which is always a good thing.

    • Christopher Forte January 25, 2011 at 4:20 AM #

      Ah, Thank you so much !!! Coming from you, that is quite a flattering compliment. I’m really glad you enjoyed it — keep reading !! x Chris

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