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Edition 08

Colour Psychology, Symbolism and Meaning

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Colours communicate big-time, writes Kate SMITH and their combination has even greater meanings that one can’t afford to take for granted.

Think about all the colours in the world and all the ways you can combine those colours. The possibilities are endless Add in the personal associations each of us have to colours and you may begin to see why no two people react to colour in exactly the same way.

The Affects of Colour

Colour reaches far beyond what you can see. It taps into your heart, mind and body. Studies show that most of the time you aren’t consciously aware of the influence colour has on you because there may be a countless number of signals all converging into a single response to a colour or colour scheme. While your reactions to colour are often subjective, there are many colour responses that can be accurately predicted.

Colour Symbolism: Learned Response

Colour symbolism describes associations or learned responses to colour based on gender, age, environment and cultural references. For example, purple is often linked to royalty because long ago it was the colour of a dye made from a mollusk that only the very wealthy could afford. Today purple is as affordable as other colours, but the association continues.

Ask a person from a western culture what colour they associate with a wedding dress and the answer would be white. Ask the same question to someone in other parts of the world and you may get a very different answer. Our associations to colour are often a learned response based on our experience.

Colour Psychology: Human Behaviour

Colour psychology on the other hand is the study of colour as a factor in human behaviour. These responses to colour are automatic, inherited and shared regardless of age, gender, geographical area or cultural background. While the effects of colour on the human body and brain are not fully understood, studies have shown that the light wavelengths of colours can stimulate the areas of the brain that regulate hormones and other physiological systems. In turn they alter mood and emotions.

Being surrounded by blue can calm you down while seeing red can increase your heart rate and speed up your respiration. Red can evoke feelings of aggression while blue may make you feel at peace. It is this combination of physical and emotional response to a colour that adds another layer to its meaning.

For example, red calls to mind love, romance and passion. Yet red is also associated with fast cars, aggressive behaviour and even rage as in “seeing red”. So how is it that the same colour has come to represent two things that seem so opposite?

It’s because red is inherently exciting. It stimulates energy, increases your blood pressure, respiration, heartbeat and pulse rate. Think about love and rage. Both of these emotions produce similar physical reactions. Love can make your heart beat a little faster and your palms sweat. Anger also raises your blood pressure and makes you heart pound faster, but for a different reason. Love, anger and the colour red all produce changes in our body that are very similar.

Colour Meaning: Personal Bias

As you have gone through life, you have developed personal colour associations. Your colour memories, along with the feeling a colour evokes, both positive and negative, are strongly linked to your experiences and can have a long reaching effect on how you respond to colour.

Your experiences, personal preferences and cultural bias can influence how you feel about a colour and thus your decisions about it. If your bedroom growing up had yellow walls, which you hated, chances are you may never think of yellow as a happy colour.

Although colour symbolism and psychology are not one and the same they are intertwined with your learned colourassociations which often closely correspond to your innate reactions to the same colour. Sprinkle in your own colour memories and you’ll begin to realize how many layers there are to the meanings of colour. You can also begin to understand how powerful colour associations are and why understanding the meaning and messages can help you to harness the incredible power of colour.