“Color is mysterious, eluding definition; it is a subjective experience, a cerebral sensation depending on three related and essential factors: light, an object and an observer.”
Enid Verity, Color Observed, 1980
The fascination with the concept of color draws its origins from the Classical Greece time period, when scientist and philosopher Aristotle developed the first known color theory scheme. He was also among the first to compare colors to music, in order to produce definitions for conceptual logic and believed that they were sent from the heavens as rays: “in a sense, light makes potential colors into actual colors”. He identified four colors as corresponding to the basic natural elements: earth, air, water and fire.
Since then, numerous other scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton and Johann Goethe have shown significant interest in the subject. Goethe, although mainly recognized for his literary masterpiece Faust, regarded his 1810 Theory of Colors (Farbenlehre) as his greatest achievement.
We will discuss today practical applications of the existing color theories in the identity branch of graphic design: logos and branding. In 1855, Hermann Helmholtz pointed out masterfully that “We never perceive the objects of the external world directly. On the contrary, we only perceive the effects of these objects on our own nervous apparatuses, and it has always been like that from the first moment of our life”. The particular effects that colors have on our psyche and how designers make use of them in their projects is the essence of this branding introspection.
Colors and Brain Processes
In Betty Edwards’ “Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors”, we find an innovative idea meant to help art students better perceive colors: seeing them as values. Edwards addresses the incongruencies in the artistic educational process in schools and states that students should first learn how to draw, then some basic color theories and only then how to paint. She bases this allegation on a fragment from “The Complete Letters of Van Gogh”, vol. I: “I have attached great value to drawing and will continue to, because it is the backbone of painting, the skeleton that supports all the rest”.
What does Edwards mean exactly? Learning how to see and draw colors as shades of gray, in relation to a gray scale, which gradually passes from white to black. Students need to be able to associate colors with the existing shades in the scale, which is difficult since some colors are automatically perceived as pale or dark when that is not actually the case.
Why is this essential? An accurate perception of the value levels of colors enables artists to arrange shapes, spaces and contrasts – which purposefully creates a beautiful composition.
As an interesting piece of information, Renaissance painters developed a method called grisaille to avoid possible color mishaps in their art. The term comes from the French equivalent of “gray”, gris and designates a process preceding the actual oil painting. They created a monochrome underpainting, usually in shades of gray, that resembled drawings and allowed the artist to then mix hues and faithfully depict the lighted and shaded areas. Similarly, the brunaille (brown) and verdaille (green) techniques appeared.
How does this translate into graphic design? The grisaille method can also be successfully applied in logo design, as designer David Airey points out in his book “Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities”. He offers as an example 160over90, a design agency from Philadelphia, U.S. that handled the Woodmere Art Museum’s rebranding project. They made a habit out of pitching their top logo choices to their clients in black and white, since they found that colors made them biased. This is an excellent tip that can be applied both in personal projects and working for others.
Edwards also concludes that scientifically speaking, drawing makes use of the visual and perceptual functions belonging to the non-verbal right hemisphere of the brain, without interference from the verbal left-side brain. On the other hand though, the input of the left hemisphere of the brain is needed for mixing colors, and respectively painting. This causes a slight shift in consciousness – different from the brain’s usual state – which artists usually perceive as entering a creative and inspired “zone”.
“In fact, the field of colors is a territory with ragged borders located somewhere between the sciences and the arts, between physics and psychology, a land whose configuration constitutes a border between these two diverse cultures.” Manlio Brusatin, “A History of Colors”, 1991
Color Symbolism and How It Affects the Human Psyche
The symbolic meaning of colors is a disputed field since each color is an ambiguous territory; they’re supposed to have both positive and negative connotations, which does not sit well with the scientific community. In the following chapter, we will undertake a journey in the depths of basic color symbolism and the way it influences the human mind. Thus you, the designer, will better grasp the colors’ subtle nuances and know how to use them according to your clients wishes, but also their and their target audience’s nationality.
As a graphic designer working specifically on identity and branding projects, you make use of a limited number of colors and you must be able to convey a certain message and generate an emotional response from the clients and their audience through your logo design. So, more so than other designers that create complex vector illustration, patterns, textures and so on, one of the essential abilities you should hone is color know how. This translates not only into color harmonizing skills, but also in mastering basic color symbolism, because it permeates all the fields succeeding the final stage of the design process.
“In symbolism, the purity of a color corresponds to its symbolic purity: The primary colors to primary emotions, and secondary and mixed colors to symbolic complexity.” Verity, “Color Observed”
White traditionally represents purity and innocence in Western cultures (bridal and baptism dresses), while in Oriental and African cultures it is the color of death – once again a sign of the purity of the departed one’s soul. In the famous Chinese theatre masks, white also designates a frightful person, as opposed to the Occidental representation of cowardice – yellow.
Black specifically stands for death, evil, hell, damnation and general negative connotations. On the opposing end are the ancient Egyptians, for whom it represented life, fertility and growth, because it was the color of the Nile Delta soil. Due to the association with the night, black can also express mystery and the unknown, while it is the symbol of ultimate elegance and simplicity in the fashion world.
Red is usually associated with stimulation, passion, virility and danger. Out of all the other colors, it is the one that generates the most widespread agreement among researchers. In ancient Rome and Greece, it was the color associated with war, while in the Christian church it is found on the priests’ garments. In Russia, it is the color of freedom, because of the flags waved during the revolution against the czars. In China, red is a customary color for wedding dresses, while in other colors it’s traditionally worn at burials. In America, it symbolizes love, action, dynamism and power (the stripes on the national flag and Valentine’s Day, for example).
Yellow is considered by researchers to be the most ambiguous of colors. It symbolizes characteristics and feelings on opposing ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, it is a sign of happiness, intellect and enlightenment, while on the other hand it represents cowardice, envy, deceit and betrayal. Think about the fact that for almost 300 years, during the Chinese Ch’ing dynasty, only the emperor wore yellow; also, according to Christian beliefs, Judas wore a yellow garment when he betrayed Jesus Christ with a kiss.
Blue is the most mysterious of colors due to the fact that although it practically surrounds us, being the color of the sky and water, it is absent from the earliest writings such as the Bible and all of Homer’s works. Today, it generally represents sadness and melancholy (see Picasso’s “blue period”), but also authority (the typical dark blue suits of elected officials) and vast distances.
Green is generally agreed to represent youth, hope and new life; it also stands for action (“Green means go”) and eco-friendliness (“Think green”). Furthermore, in England it is associated with the heroic figure of Robin Hood and in Islam, it is the color of the Prophet Mohammad, which practically renders it sacred.
Orange contains curiously little hidden meaning. There are no expressions that tie it with feelings, as opposed to feeling blue, being in a black mood, being yellow or thinking green. It is usually associated with heat, warmth and energy and is recognized for being the color of the Buddhist monks’ robes.
Purple is the closest in value to black, due to the fact that it reflects so little light. It is generally associated with deep feelings in all artistic fields, royalty (because it was worn by the ruling class in times when purple dye was very expensive) and bravery (the honorary medal for courage is the “Purple Heart”).
We can certainly emit a recipe to cap with success the color choosing process in identity and branding: mix your client’s preferences with the subjective meaning of colors that we discussed above, your knowledge of color harmonizing (“complementary colors, varied by transforming the original colors and their complements to varied values and intensities”, Betty Edwards, “Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of mixing colors”) and your mastering of the appropriate responses from the brain in reaction to specific colors.