This instinct goes a little further than simply preferring one colour over another. Our brain automatically associates certain colours with specific characteristics. For example, we view cooler colours like green and blue as calming, whilst brighter colours like red and yellow are perceived as happy and uplifting.
This impact of colour on our behaviour has long been studied in a field called the psychology of colour. It aims to understand why and how different colours affect our feelings and decision-making processes. Although there are many hues and a never-ending range of shades, the psychology of colour focuses on general guidelines of key colours we see around us every day.
As a short wavelength colour, blue is, in simplest terms, the easiest colour to look at. It’s what makes it the most used colour in the world. However, the power of the colour blue emerges not only from its popularity but also from the meaning we have subconsciously assigned to it. It universally stands for tranquillity, stability, trust, and loyalty. This is why we see blue used amongst corporations within their branding – think social platforms, law firms, and charity organisations.
Blue in its lighter tones is calm and relaxing. In the world of interior design, you’ll find it in family homes, especially in rooms meant for relaxation, like the living room or bedroom. A bed frame upholstered in a luxurious, blue fabric brings a sense of tranquillity and can aid in getting a good night’s rest, whilst a blue feature wall in the living room creates a calm ambience. According to WGSN, a leading trend forecasting agency, Elemental Blue – a very specific shade of blue, is the colour we should expect to see a lot around us next Spring/Summer season.
“Elemental Blue confirms the continuation of refined mid-tone colours that speak of a slowed-down lifestyle and increased sensory awareness.”
Red on the other hand is an extreme colour – in all its meanings. The most powerful of all colours, it evokes a sense of energy and instantly grabs attention, thanks to its high visibility. This makes it an appropriate colour for warning signals like stop signs and fire engines. It’s one of the most intense colours, with its meaning ranging from love and desire to anger and danger.
Different cultures around the world perceive red in diverse ways. For example, in China’s stock market, red symbolises a price increase, whereas the extreme opposite rings true in many other countries. Why? Because red is the colour of happiness in Chinese culture, also traditionally used for the bride’s wedding dress.
Red’s bold and powerful presence also makes it the colour of choice for many iconic brands, like Coca-Cola, where the colour red is used to convey a sense of excitement, energy, and youth. In interior design, this makes red the perfect colour to introduce into places meant for celebration – for instance, a lounge painted in bold, bright red will bring in a spirited feeling of joy and excitement. Its apparent link to food also makes it a great lead tone for a dining space – “We tend to eat more in the presence of red”, states Carlton Wagner, the Director of Wagner Institute for Colour Research.
Although much less common, purple is a colour that beautifully combines blue and red. Through that unique combination, it creates an extremely unusual and lively tone, uniting the meaning of these colours. The joy, youth and energy of red, and the trustworthiness and loyalty of blue. And through this, in colour psychology purple symbolises luxury, royalty, and wisdom. It’s also the colour that represents magic, mystery and the supernatural. This is because purple is a rare colour to spot in nature, making it seem somewhat otherworldly.
“As we move into a world of unprecedented change, the selection of Very Peri brings a novel perspective and vision of the trusted and beloved blue colour family, encompassing the qualities of the blues, yet at the same time with its violet red undertone, Very Peri displays a spritely, joyous attitude and dynamic presence that encourages courageous creativity and imaginative expressions.”
— Leatrice Eiseman, Executive Director of The Pantone Colour Institute on Pantone’s Colour of the Year ‘Very Peri’, a shade of purple.
Thanks to its irreplaceable stance in fashion and design, black is perceived as the most elegant, timeless, and classic of all colours. And although it evokes a range of contrasting emotions, it’s universally known as a sign of strength. This is why it’s very often chosen as a key colour for many brands, including Savoir.
Fashion’s lasting love for this colour can be traced back to the 19th century, when it was adopted as the colour of choice by the Romantics, such as Byron, Shelley and Keats, who regarded it favourably for its melancholic aura.
The unapologetic strength of this colour also alludes to a feeling of tradition, power, and authority. And so, when used in a design, it creates a feeling of grandeur. It’s usually seen presented against the contrasting white, where both colours elevate one another like within the concept of Yinyang.
And perhaps this is exactly where the power of the colour black comes from – contrasting, yet equally influential feelings it evokes can only be perceived as a sign of strength.
On the other side of the spectrum sits white – the colour widely known to represent innocence, a fresh beginning and optimism. This extremely prevalent colour might just be the only one with a globally agreed meaning and emotion.
It’s a neutral colour that allows our eyes to rest, hence why commonly used across digital platforms and design. Its use in architecture is associated with a classic and traditional look, like the beautiful houses, cascading steps, and roads of Santorini, Greece. Whilst it was originally used there for a very practical reason, the optimistic and tranquil feeling it evinces cannot be overlooked.
Although also a very popular choice in interior design, it tends to be combined with earth tones and a mix of different textures, to create a clean and relaxing ambience, as opposed to being displayed on its own, which can create a sterile, almost hospital-like feeling when used indoors.
Yellow is commonly used to attract attention. Hence why we see it on warning signs and safety clothing. And yet, despite what might initially sound alerting, yellow is universally viewed as a colour of happiness, sunshine and youth. This feeling comes from where we most commonly see it – it’s the colour of the sun, flowers, and vegetables. Not at all coincidently, yellow is heavily used across food industries, especially those that are popular amongst families with children, and in toys, because of the warm and youthful emotion it evokes.
That said, there is such a thing as too much yellow. According to The Wagner Institute of Colour Research, yellow activates the anxiety centre of the brain and especially in infants, it can result in crying. And albeit being a prevalent colour in interiors, it’s oftentimes used only as an accent. For example, instead of painting the entire room, a headboard in striking yellow will be a better option for creating a joy-inducing bedroom. This approach to yellow can also be seen in Van Gogh’s work – even though it was anecdotally his favourite colour, it rarely takes centre stage in his works. Regardless of your personal feeling toward yellow, in most cases, moderation is the right answer.
Despite Shakespeare’s most infamous phrase ‘green with envy’ in colour psychology green has very positive feelings attached to it. Thanks to its roots in the fauna, green is most associated with nature and so it embodies the feeling of peace, nurture and growth. Its use amongst brands and products represents a feeling of being full of life and vitality, whilst the addition of green in design and interior is used to draw the feeling of peacefulness indoors.
As opposed to red or yellow, green has a shorter wavelength, meaning our eyes don’t need to take as long to adjust to its tone, allowing us to view it as calming and relaxing. This is why we perceive blue and grey as tranquil colours too, whilst the longer wavelength colours like red or orange take a moment longer for our eyes to adjust and therefore are felt as bolder and stronger.
And although the universally assigned characteristics are still a driving force in understanding the meaning behind colours – our views, traditions and background affect how we interpret each colour. In our everyday lives, we simultaneously allow the power of colour to dictate our choices. From the colour of your attire on a special day, or the choice of the colour of your bed linen. Through colour, we not only seek a way to express who we are to the world, but it’s also where we seek a reflection of how we feel.