50 Hard Science-Backed Facts About Color

By on May 17, 2016 in Inspiration
50 Hard Science-Backed Facts About Color

Here's my problem with almost every color infographic out there: just when I'm about to say "aha!" and follow whatever it says, something stops me right in my tracks: where is the author getting all this information from? That's when I start digging every link in the "references" section. Disappointment sinks in: while interesting, none of these "facts" are based on solid scientific evidence.

That's why I decided to collect evidence-based insights about color meanings that can help us all make more informed — and responsible — design decisions both for personal and client projects.

Before I share these with you, I will say that the scientific method is not free of flaws. The insights you are about to read have all been published in reputable academic journals, backed by rigorous experimentation protocols, and defended by leading experts. Some are based on qualitative and others on quantitative studies. Unlike other data points you'll find across the Web, these were not generated by companies/brands, but by researchers with a compromise to remain objective and impartial — acting under the scientific method.

Also worth noting is the fact that colors carry cultural associations that make it very difficult to land at universal meanings. Simply put, what red evokes for Western users might be totally unrelated to what it does for Eastern users. Analyze the following studies and insights through the lens of where they took place.

Color Insights from Science

Color Insight 1: Red, orange, and yellow evoke so-called active emotions, or feelings that involve physical arousal. The opposite of active emotions are passive ones, and those imply some kind of sedation. (Clarke and Costall, 2008)

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Color Insight 2: Blue is associated with low anxiety levels, calm, and comfort. (Wexner, 1954)

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Color Insight 3: Yellow has been linked to happiness and excitement because it evokes the sun and summer time. (Kaya and Epps, 2004)

Color Insight 4: Red provokes more anxiety than blue, and that affects the way users perceive wait times. This study found that users exposed to a blue background screen while waiting for a download perceived it as quicker than did participants exposed to the red background screen. (Gorn, 2004)

Color Insight 5: This study found strong evidence that black is consistently seen as defiant, and not associated with words like tender, calm, and cheerful. (Murray, 1957)

Color Insight 6: Are certain colors optimistic? In two experiments, green and pink backgrounds enhanced happy face recognition and impaired sad face recognition, compared with gray — which served as the control color. (Gil and Le Bigot, 2014)

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Color Insight 7: Like music, color conveys emotion. So well, in fact, that a study found that there was a connection between music and color choices. Listening to faster music produced color choices that were more saturated, lighter, and yellower whereas slower, minor music produced the opposite pattern (choices that were desaturated, darker, and bluer). The emotional associations of music were found to be strongly correlated with the colors chosen to go with it. (Palmer et al, 2013)

Color Insight 8: When taken together, the results of five color-taste studies coincide in that the color black (and purple/violet) is widely associated with bitter. Salty is associated with white, and sometimes blue. Meanwhile, sour is often related to yellow and green. Sweet is linked to pink and/or red. (Spence et al, 2015)

Color Insight 9: Color is also related to scent. A 2014 cross-cultural study observed that the fruity odor tended to be associated with pink and red colors, while the musty odor was more associated with browns and oranges. (Levitan et al, 2014)

Color Insight 10: Seeing that red enhanced male's attraction to females in primates, researchers conducted 5 experiments that demonstrate the same effect in humans. Red, relative to other colors, leads men to view women as more attractive and more sexually desirable. (Elliot and Niesta, 2008)


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Color Insight 11: A theory known as Ecological Valence Theory (EVT) proposes that people generally like colors to the degree that they like the objects associated with those colors. People like colors strongly associated with objects they like (e.g., blues with clear skies) and dislike colors strongly associated with objects they dislike (e.g., browns with rotten food). (Palmer and Schloss, 2010)

Color Insight 12: A study on color associations in children showed that they link red with love and anger, while black evokes death. White was the color most often named for honesty. (Byrnes, 1983)

Color Insight 13: In a study with undergraduate students, brighter colors (white, pink, red, yellow, blue, purple, and green) elicited more positive responses than darker colors. Dark colors included brown, black, and gray. These positive responses were classified as four categories: happy, excited, relaxed, and positive. Negative responses were classified as: anxious, boring, sad, or negative. (Hemphill, 1996)

Color Insight 14: Studying Hong Kong white-collar workers and managerial staff in mainland China, a group of researchers concluded that someone's occupational background is associated with how color is interpreted for its connoted meaning. We should consider occupational background carefully when choosing colors in product designs, especially for safety. (Wang and Or, 2015)

Color Insight 15: A 2008 study with adults and pre-literate children concluded that we map certain colors with specific letters in two major ways: natural bias (the shape of the letter resembles the color) and literacy (we've been taught to relate them). For example, we associate letter X with black via natural bias, and A with red via literacy. (Spector and Maurer, 2008)

Color Insight 16: Across 6 experiments, results showed that color-based stereotypic associations (like pink is for girls, blue is for boys) guide young children's behavior, activate associated stereotypes in adulthood, and bias impressions of male and female targets. This phenomenon takes place despite our efforts to ban stereotyping and discrimination. (Cunningham and Macrae, 2011)

Color Insight 17: Responses in a study about color associations and shampoo suggested seven pairings of color/product-functions: Red/Hot oil treatment, Yellow/Bright and shiny hair, green/Herbal extracts, Blue/Deep cleaning, Purple/Soothing, Black/antiseptic, and White/Anti-dandruf. (Ya-Hsien Ko, 2011)

Color Insight 18: A group of scientists used photographs to investigate clothing color effects on a group of raters and clothing wearers. They discovered that clothing color has a psychological influence on wearers at least as much as on raters, and that this ultimately influences attractiveness judgments by others. Their results support the idea that color associations can bias interpersonal judgments. (Roberts et. al, 2010)

Color Insight 19: From a series of six studies, using different types of tasks, a group of researchers demonstrated that red (versus blue) can activate an avoidance (versus approach) motivation and subsequently can improve performance on detail-oriented (versus creative) cognitive tasks. Blue enhanced performance on a creative task. As participants completed these two types of tasks, color was manipulated through their computers' background screen color. (Mehta and Zhu, 2009)

5_Blue_CreativeTasks

Color Insight 20: Consistent with the study we quoted above (#11), researchers found a relationship between political parties and people's preference for certain colors on specific politically-relevant days. On non-Election Days, Republicans and Democrats preferred Republican red equally, and Republicans actually preferred Democratic blue more than Democrats did. On Election Day, however, Republicans’ and Democrats’ color preferences changed to become more closely aligned with their party’s colors. Republicans liked Republican red more than Democrats did, and no longer preferred Democratic blue more than Democrats did. (Schloss and Palmer, 2014)

Color Insight 21: Researchers at the University of Illinois found that yellow, white, and grey are associated with weakness, while red and black are associated with strength. Black and grey are passive, while red is active. (Adams and Osgood, 1973)

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Color Insight 22: A study with 98 college students showed that color green evokes mainly positive emotions such as relaxation and comfort because it reminded most of the respondents of nature. The color green-yellow had the lowest number of positive responses because it was associated with vomit and elicited the feelings of sickness and disgust. (Kaya and Epps, 2004)

Color Insight 23: Four experiments demonstrated that the brief perception of red prior to an important test (e.g., an IQ test) hurts performance. This effect appeared to take place outside of participants' conscious awareness. (Elliot et al., 2007)

Color Insight 24: A color-gender study in 6 countries evidenced that color is very important for females for most of the product categories, particularly clothing, backpacks, hats, bathing suits, and house paint. Color was more important for men in products such as digital cameras, candy, game systems, beverages, toothbrushes, and mouthwash. (Okan, 2013)

Color Insight 25: In a study on brand personality and logo colors in the fashion industry, researchers found that blue logos were associated with competence (confident, corporate, reliable), while green logos were associated with ruggedness (outdoorsy, rugged, masculine). Purple logos were significantly associated with sophistication, including traits like "feminine", "glamorous", and "charming". (Ridgway and Myers, 2014)

7_GreenLogos

Color Insight 26: Having analyzed 233 respondents' color choices for (hand-drawn) self-portraits, researchers found that the existence of depressive tendency correlated with the colors used on one's face. There was a
greater occurrence of dark grey in self-portraits by subjects with depressive tendency than those without. (Wu et al., 2009)

Color Insight 27: To help photographers and designers who work with images, scientists in Taiwan conducted a study to evaluate how psychological factors (related to color) play a different role in different image categories. They found that Color Comfort plays the most influential role in scenery images while Color Harmony is influential in images about food and plants. (Shing-Sheng and Po-Sung, 2010)

Color Insight 28: In a study about indoor color and buying behavior, researchers found that green color and the time spent in the store were statistically significant positive effects on product purchase. Time spent in the store was positively associated with soft lighting conditions, but negatively associated by red indoor color. (Barli et al., 2012)

Color Insight 29: 1095 Dutch citizens were surveyed about their color preferences to evaluate how topics and contexts would impact choices. Black was the overall favorite color for clothing, mainly chosen by females (40%), while males primarily chose blue (27%). For building interiors subjects preferred white. For moods, subjects preferred white for being quiet or being able to focus, red for being energetic and had no color preference for being creative. (Bakker et al., 2015)

Color Insight 30: Several groups of subjects were studied in 8 countries to explore how two-color combinations affected a like/dislike response. Female observers preferred color pairs with high-lightness (value) or low-chroma values more than their male counterparts. Observers with a design background liked low-chroma color pairs or those containing colors of similar hue more than non-design observers. Older observers liked color pairs with high-lightness or high-chroma values more than young observers did. (Out et al., 2012)

Wait, what is color chroma and value? In colorimetry, the measurement of color, there's a system called Munsell that defines colors based on three dimensions: hue, value (or lightness) and chroma. Hue is what we know as the actual color (think purple, blue, red), value relates to how light or dark it is (think tints and shades, or how much white or black there is), and chroma points to the color's purity, intensity or saturation.

Color Insight 31: We introduced the idea that red is connected with attractiveness back in insight #10. Another study evaluated how colors like red and black connect to such attractiveness. Researchers found that red leads to attractiveness via perceived sexual receptivity, while black leads to attractiveness via perceived fashionableness. (Pazda et al., 2014)

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Color Insight 32: Researchers studied the influence of color in educational environments. Results showed that, while participants assessed the situation as relaxed, calm, and pleasant in pale color conditions (pale red, pale blue, and pale yellow walls), reading scores were significantly higher in vivid color conditions (vivid red, vivid blue, vivid yellow walls). Heart rates significantly increased in the red and yellow conditions. Blue increased relaxation and calmness feelings of participants compared to the other colors. (Al-Ayash et al., 2016)

Color Insight 33: Do color combinations impact old and young people differently? In a study on color emotions and age, achromatic color pairs (think shades of grey) were less liked by older observers than by young observers. For single colors, white, dark colors, and achromatic colors were also less liked by older observers than by young observers. (Ou et al., 2012)

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Color Insight 34: Studying the impact of saturation on visual comfort, a group of scientists found that the lower the mean saturation of a given image, the more comfort is felt when viewing it. An image's saturation value had a negative correlation to visual comfort. (Sagawa, 1999)

Color Insight 35: Color is also related to fragrance. In a series of experiments that tried to analyze this relationship, warm colors strongly evoked the floral fragrance family, while the cool colors did the fresh family. The warmer the hues were, the higher their similarities with floral fragrances became. (Kim 2013)

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Color Insight 36: In a study on the bio-psychological effects of color, blue excited the sympathetic nerve system and increased blood flow to the subjects in a relaxed state. Many subjects felt calmed by purple. (Kido, 2000)

Color Insight 37: When thinking about food, what role does color play? Results of a study on tomato puree buyers showed that color and brand name seemed to be more important than taste and odor of fresh tomato. When consumers were tasting samples, color and brand name affected not only hedonic judgments but sensory perception as well. (Monaco et al., 2003)

Color Insight 38: In a study on environmental color, more positive retail outcomes occurred in blue rather than red environments. More simulated purchases, fewer purchase postponements, and a stronger inclination to shop and browse were found in blue retail environments. (Bellizzi and Hite, 1992)

Color Insight 39: Analyzing color naming, a group of researchers found that the characteristics of a color's name may drive how people process certain products. People are more interested in an unfamiliar (or atypical) color names (e.g., blue haze or Alpine snow) because such names invite them to search for the reason for the deviation. This search results in additional (positive) attributions about the product, and a more favorable response. (Miller et al., 2005)

Color Insight 40:When asked about colors that matched a certain brand's qualities, respondents associated stability with blue/brown, fun and energy with yellow, and excitement with red/purple. (Hynes, 2009)

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Color Insight 41: In a classic study on color and affective stereotypes, cluster analysis showed that red, orange, and yellow were associated with outgoing exuberance; red, yellow-green, and purple, with hostility; and purple, gray, and black, with asocial despondency. (Aaronson, 1970).

Color Insight 42: The results of a study on website structure and color showed that websites of blue hue, medium brightness or medium and high saturation received the highest overall aesthetics ratings. (Seckler et al., 2015)

Color Insight 43: Researchers in Canada looked at the importance of color for web design and concluded that website color appeal is a significant determinant for both website trust and satisfaction. (Cyr et al., 2010)

Color Insight 44: An investigation on color temperature and web design showed that there are significantly more favorable perceptions regarding a website's design aesthetics when cool color combinations (blue-light blue) are used, as opposed to warm color combinations (red-orange). (Coursaris et al., 2008)

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Color Insight 45: Studying retail environments, a group of researchers found that bank sub-branch spaces with warm color tone and colored-light received a higher positive score of impression and identity. (Tantanatewin and Inkarojrit, 2016)

Color Insight 46: Red color and red light trigger a stop in movement and activate a state of threat. Motor performance tasks requiring online control may be affected by this phenomenon. (Williams et al., 2011)

Color Insight 47: Color can affect the way in which we process faces. French researchers found that a red background resulted in more negative face perception than a green background, whether the poser was female or male. (Gil and Le Bigot, 2015)

Color Insight 48: Color and emotion can act together to produce different effects. For women viewing a man displaying pride, the color red increased their perceptions of his attractiveness, but for women viewing a man displaying shame, the color red tended to decrease their perceptions of his attractiveness. (Buechner et al., 2014)

Color Insight 49: Red carries associations with hostility. A recent study on personality and color preferences concluded that a preference for the color red was higher as interpersonal hostility increased. In addition, hostile people were biased to see the color red more frequently than nonhostile people, and there was a relationship between a preference for the color red and hostile social decision making. (Fetterman and Liu, 2015)

Color Insight 50 Lastly, a group of researchers found that the associations carried by colors appear to be dependent on the context at hand. That doesn't mean that the insights revealed above are not applicable or valid, since there is a clear overlap between universal associations and those that the context in which you've lived "trains" you to recognize.

Awesome color tools worth trying

Cymbolism: a project that aims to compile designers' color-word associations via voting to help others create better visuals. For example, 64% of respondents associated "Clean" with color white.

Amazing reads about color theory and design

Fraser, T., & Banks, A. (2004). Designer’s color manual: The complete guide to color theory and application. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Color Research & Application, Wiley. (Yes, there's an entire scientific journal devoted to color theory. Awesome right?)

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Articles cited above

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13 Comments

  1. This is a great article and one that I will use to help my clients understand why choosing colors fro their branding is much more than finding a 'nice combination'. Thank you!

  2. This is a terrific article and I'm attempting to share it on LinkedIn, but you don't seem to support it. Instead, I get a notice that your site thinks I am a bot.

  3. Thank you Laura, for such a fascinating and well researched article! Reading through this list, I was struck again by the incredible richness that our perception of colour adds to our life experience. I was particularly interested in No 39 on colour names. I have long been aware of the delight I find in unusual colour names that fit just right ... and now I know why!

  4. Thanks, Laura! Really appreciate having the results from so many studies concisely summarized in one place. Thanks for all the work to put it together. I find it interesting that, no matter how much effort was exerted for a scientific approach for qualitative or quantitative results, our perception and response to color seems driven by an almost infinite set of variables that makes trying to get a "handle" on it like aiming at an erratically moving target. I think it also shows how intensely personal color is.

    • Staff

    @Kathryn J Glad you enjoyed it! I also found #39 fascinating. No wonder Pantone names its colors using such vivid terms! Serenity and Rose Quartz are definitely thought-provoking choices.

    • Staff

    @John Potts Thanks for appreciating the work it took. 😅 This article actually emerged from a very personal need. I couldn't find a trustworthy source that compiled various scientific studies on a topic that we all love (and work with) so much. I'd say you are completely right in saying that color is an intensely personal experience — all these studies seem to hint at that very idea.

  5. Wow, all that in one article, brava! Great to see you reference your sources, something I have to keep in mind for my own work. Really liked seeing the color studies on different age groups. Even learned a little on the topic of chroma. Thank you.

  6. Hi. This is great. Will def. share with my students. But can you please fix the misspelling in #16? It should be phenomenon (with an -n and not -m). Thanks! :)

  7. I was starting to get so sick of the common "color meanings" posts that I see overshared on design sights. Having some scientific background like what you have exhaustively listed here is .... it's just amazing. Thank you so much for this list - I have it bookmarked and I plan to come read it as often as necessary until I can commit some of this to memory/common knowledge.

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