Color Emotions

Over the last few issues I have been discussing color, how the human eye perceives it, how the computer manages it and how it is displayed in the browser. These articles are posted at:

This week I will discuss the emotional aspects of color. When we view a web site, the colors will evoke an emotional response at some level. That emotion could encourage a visitor to explore deeper or to move on faster. The correct response depends upon your objective.

The first thing to realize is that color is a perceived experience. When someone asks you what your favorite color is, you may or may not be sure but you can be certain that there are some color experiences that you like better than others. In other words, colors and color combinations can be perceived as good or bad and will play a significant role in determining how your web design is perceived.

A less obvious perception is if the color choice is perceived to be right or wrong. In this case, the color combinations may be good but wrong for the purpose. Music can be used as a good analogy. You may like heavy metal rock but it will probably generate the wrong reaction if used at a funeral. Colors can invoke an emotional reaction in people in exactly the same way.

The emotional responses generated by music are usually quite obvious and easily understood: happy, sad, exciting, introspective and so on. Elevators are small, crowded claustrophobic spaces. It is no coincidence that elevator music is perceived to be simple and unexciting. You just do not want to get people excited in an elevator. Grocery stores often switch between fast tempo music when they are busy and slow easygoing music when it is quite. In the first instance they want you to get your stuff and get out. In the second instance they want you to take your time and hopefully buy more.

Color works in the same way but their effects are harder to appreciate and more easily overlooked by most people. Although both color and music can generate a direct emotional response in people, color is more easily influenced by fashion. Colors that can remind us of a time or place can evoke an emotion related to that experience. Many of these are quite personal and beyond the control of a designer. Others however, can be tied to a common experience. These include the psychedelic colors of the sixties, the pastel colors of the tropics, the colors of autumn, colors associated with a popular recent movie and so on.

How a passage of music is perceived usually crosses generation and ethnic experiences. You may not like classical music but you will still experience the emotions associated with a slow sad ballad. Colors are far less definitive. The colors used in India are far different than the colors used in the industrial north and the colors used in the tropical south. They will evoke different emotions for people from these different regions. Deciding which colors to paint an elevator is consequently a lot harder than deciding which music to play.

For what it is worth, there are some universal elements associated with color. Red for example is considered to be warm, blue is cold and green is neutral. Red also tends to make a space appear smaller while blue tends to enlarge a space. Red will excite, blue will depress and green will relax. Although this may also be obvious and simplistic for many people, they are valid.

If you visit some of the major web site such as Microsoft, you will observe that their color choices are no accident. They have probably undertaken extensive research on the effects of the colors that they have chosen. In addition to using the Web Safe colors, they are being careful to ensure that they elicit the desired emotional response. In their case I suspect that they want you to believe that they are Big, Stable and Professional. Disney on the other hand, wants Big, Stable and Fun.

The emotional effect of color is a huge topic by itself and has undergone significant psychological research that is undoubtedly used by the major corporations such as Microsoft and Disney. Before you let that overwhelm you however, keep in mind that color use is fashionable. Innovative use of color often starts at the bottom. The large companies simply follow the lead as it becomes fashionable.

As a final note, the brain has a tendency to acclimatize to a color scheme. That is, if you look at the world through rose-colored glasses your brain will simply start to interpret the colors as normal. Your brain would consequently interpret a light rose color as being white and would not realize that it has a light rose tint unless it is viewed next to a pure white. This fact can be used to elicit a subliminal emotional response from people. If you use a very light red tint for your web site it may appear warm (or cramped). A blue tint may cause your site to appear cold (or open). Unfortunately I cannot tell you which one if either, is best for your site.

Next week, color specification.

"IMS Web Tips" ISSN 1488-7088
© Copyright 2000 Virtual Mechanics

"IMS Web Tips" is a weekly news letter for all web site managers regardless of experience who are looking for detailed information on creating, maintaining and promoting their web sites.

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