Reporter 455, 25 September 2000

Colour chemists are trying to put a finger on the feelgood factor

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it ought to be possible to measure it: the human eye, after all, is a physical mechanism which responds to objectively measurable stimuli.

But why do certain colours spark off different subjective reactions in the viewer? And how can we measure with any accuracy the emotional ‘value’ of a particular shade?

Comparing notes: Colour Chemistry lecturer Dr Long Lin and PhD research Claire Wood study samples of automative paint

A subtle shift of shade can make all the difference for a dress design on the catwalk or a car in the showroom window. The reasons why have been explored by Dr Jim Nobbs and colleagues in the University’s colour chemistry department, in collaboration with scientists in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Spain.

Colour physicists can apply objective measurements to the way light reflected off surfaces is sensed by the eye. A given colour will belong to a point on the scale between light and dark, and the eye will locate it in terms of the stimulus to its red, green and blue-sensitive light receptors. Colourists have devised a variety of numerically expressed scales to denote these properties.

But the brain deals with the perception of this stimulus in more complex ways.

Whether an individual sees a colour as warm or cool, soft or hard, dynamic or passive, vivid or sombre, will depend on a range of variables including that person’s life experience, education and cultural context.

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Market conditions are influential, too: a colour close to that season’s catwalk themes may look more attractive to fashion victims; or, in a country where washing-up liquid is almost always sold in green bottles, a bright red design might look all wrong.

Tetsuyo Sato of the Kyoto Institute of Technology, a long-term partner of Colour Chemistry, visited Leeds to help devise a transnational project to refine the numerical expression of colours in a way that took account of ‘colour emotion’. Experiments in four countries involved groups of volunteers studying matching colour samples and being asked to assess them in terms of sets of opposing words – striking/subdued, gaudy/plain, heavy/light and so on.

It is well known, for example, that while black is the traditional colour of mourning in the Western world, other countries associate white or purple with this sentiment. The transnational study group found this to be the tip of the iceberg: when the Japanese and British sample groups were shown a particular shade of yellowish red and asked to classify it as ‘dynamic’ or ‘passive’, they came up with opposite answers. Conversely, a shade of blue which looked fairly ‘dynamic’ to British viewers got a half-and-half verdict in Japan. A panel described as ‘light green’ by UK viewers was decidedly ‘dark green’ to the average Japanese onlooker.

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The proportion of people in each sample assigning one or another of these values to a given shade – warm/cool, soft/hard – can be plotted against the standard colour measurement scale so that it should be possible to predict what kind of a response a given colour will evoke in a given country.

In an increasingly global marketplace, designers for consumer products need to know this sort of thing: a shade for a soap powder brand which suggests a fresh summer’s breeze in one culture might appear cold and harsh in another.

Researchers in Barcelona will help the team assess whether colour emotions differ between northern European cultures and the Mediterranean.

"It would be nice to develop a scale of expressing ‘colour emotion’ numerically that could be applied worldwide," said Dr Nobbs. "But to establish that it can’t be done would be equally fascinating."

See also the colour chemistry website:

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