Sources of Color Meanings
All color meanings are relative; these interpretations are influenced by a variety of factors, including age, gender, personal experience, mood, ethnic identity, history, and tradition. Affinity for the particular colors of a nation's flag shows how tradition, nationalism, and history impact color responses.
Color preferences that predominate when a person comes of age (or nostalgia for a particular time in history) can cause resonance. For example, the earth-tone palette of harvest gold, avocado green, and burnt orange—central to 1970s color schemes—evokes strong associations in people who were teenagers then.
Color assignment based on gender, as in the Western tradition of pink for girls and blue for boys, is both adopted and subverted in children's products. However, it is rare for male-oriented objects to be colored pink in any culture. Are such differences between the sexes due to physiology or socialization? No one is quite sure, but a recent study found that more women than men have a favorite color. Also, when asked for a preference between bright and soft colors, women tend to pick soft colors while men choose bright ones.
Age is another important factor related to color interpretation. Children and the elderly have an affinity for intense, bright colors. Teenagers like whatever their parents don't appreciate. In addition, a 1976 study showed the effects of color on mood. Groups of people were placed in different rooms—one colorful and complex, the other gray and sterile. Researchers recorded pulse rates as well as individuals' subjective emotional feelings. The results showed stress and boredom in the gray room, supporting the notion that color causes both physical and emotional responses, all of which could trigger judgments about specific colors.
Tapping into Color's Associations
Psychologists have suggested that color impression can account for as much as 60 percent of the acceptance or rejection of a product or service. When choosing colors to enhance the message being communicated, it is essential to anticipate audience perceptions. All color is relative, and people can have strong, often subconscious, prejudices against certain colors and color schemes.
It is a designer's job to select colors that elicit correct responses. They need to consider carefully for whom a piece is being created, and how internal and external audiences will read the design in terms of color alone. It's not just an aesthetic choice. Designers need to leverage color meaning to achieve their client's goals.
Using Proprietary Colors to Convey Information
The idea of "owning" a color is one of the highest priorities in managing logos and corporate identities and is generally important to all design and advertising visual systems. Orange has been associated with the children's television network Nickelodeon for almost two decades. Pantone 659, a deep, dark blue, is used in the identity system of retail clothing giant The Gap and was also the name of one of the company's fragrance products. In these cases, color creates a symbolic link with the producer and its products. A bright golden yellow has been associated with photographic products manufacturer Kodak for decades. The color becomes a stand-in for the concepts of "kids' entertainment" or "trendy clothing" or even arguably, "photography."
Perhaps subverting standard meanings would help to make a color proprietary. What if a health-related product had a black or brown logo instead of the expected green one? Would organic food packaging jump off the shelf more if it were designed in unnatural, even day-glo, colors? What about a slick, high-tech company adopting an earthy organic color palette? All of these could separate a brand from its competition. Most clients would relish the idea of having color alone symbolize their company.
Color as a Convention
Color meanings are held deep in our subconscious. Color is a state of mind as much as anything. In a physical sense, there is no such thing as color, just light waves of different wavelengths. The human eye can distinguish between the wavelengths, so we see the world in color. However, the human brain perceives more. We feel color. It has biological, psychological, social, and cultural dimensions, all of which give it meaning and convey information.