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Colours and Emotions
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message n 96]

Colours are good means to convey emotions. Although there is a psychology of colour and some of them have universal emotional effects, in most cases their meanings are culture dependent. 

The emotions associated to some colours have a strong cultural component. For example in China death is associated to green while in the West it’s associated to the colour black. In other contexts green is linked to envy. Red means good luck in China while Westerners associate it with the sporting spirit. (See for example the page of Pantone about colour or the ErgoGero’s page).

Nevertheless it’s worth distinguishing between emotions and meanings. While emotions are unconscious, meanings have a stronger cultural and conventional component. The most emotionally primary colours appear to be red and blue. The act of seeing the colour red is capable of increasing the blood pressure and heart beat, while seeing the blue colour has the opposite effect.

Colours are typically divided into warm (yellows, reds, oranges) and cool ones (blues, greens and violets) due to primitive and probably universal associations to the sun and fire for the former ones and to water and vegetation the latter ones.

Warm and cool colours. In this example the colours of the left half are considered warm ones and those of the left half are considered to be cool.

Nevertheless it’s not easy to take advantage of the psychology of colour in visualisation for the very reason that their deep mechanisms are not yet well understood scientifically.

Market researchers have devoted considerable effort to know which colours are preferred by consumers and how the fashion works in this matter. For example, people interested in the preferences of Japanese consumers can try this link

The meanings and associations vary noticeably between societies but are somewhat uniform in the western world, probably due to the strong cultural homogenisation. See for example the page at  Cornell University

From Cailin Boyle’s book Color Harmony for the Web” we extract some of the meanings associated to colour in western culture.


   Red: danger, excitement, fire, passion, blood, fight or flight, some sexual connotation. 


   Purple: Wealth, royalty, sophistication, intelligence.


   Blue: Quietness, serenity, truth, dignity, constancy, reliability, power.


   Black: Sophistication, elegance, power, rebellion.


   White: Purity, cleanness, luminosity, vacuum.


   Yellow: Warmth, the sun for many cultures, brightness, joy if little saturated.


   Green: Nature, fresh, vegetation, health, green/blues are the favourites of consumers

The application of the psychology of colour understood as conveying emotional information has its maximum exponents in design, architecture, marketing and advertising, more that in Information Visualisation itself.

There are authentic mountains of information on the colour in the web and about its (supposed) optimal use in this or that application. Nevertheless, the search for scientific articles about objective and verifiable features of colour psychology hasn’t given me good results regarding how to apply it to designing information. Any reference on the topic will be welcome.

Again, as in many other topics, many opinions are present but few truths show their colours.

Incidentally, a useful aspect that you can find in the web is that of colour pickers to choose web safe (or not so safe) colours. At the York University and web-graphics.com you can find some of the most interesting web based colour pickers. Also worth taking a look is the simple yet useful Java Color Serve

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