WGSN’s colour director on the evolution of how humans perceive and define colour

31 July 2017

WGSN’s colour director Jane Monnington Boddy tells the fascinating history of how humans have attempted to communicate and define colour, following the launch of a major new colour system.

Colour is one of the purest and most primitive forms of communication we have. It signals danger with the yellow and black of wasps bodies, while pretty pink flowers invite pollination. Throughout mankind’s evolution, we’ve come to associate particular colours with emotional responses and triggers. Yet it’s also one of the most subjective and disputed visual sensations there is.

Henri Matisse said: “My choice of colours is not based on any scientific theory. It is based on observation, on feeling, on the very nature of each experience. I simply seek to find colours that will fit my feeling.” Humans connect with colour on a visceral level, and a colour’s psychological associations run deep within human culture and imagination. As such, when faced with making colour selections people tend to be guided by their own subjective colour propensities. Colourblindness aside, what’s indigo to me may seem like a violet to you. Berlin and Kay even explored how culture plays a part in their book Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, which explores how entire countries categorise colour differently. For instance, in Greece and Russia light blue and dark blue are considered completely different colours, as dissimilar as orange and purple.

Perception of colour is idiosyncratic, influenced by personal experience and culture but also based on the activity of cone cells in the eye which have different spectral sensitivities. Humans are trichromats; they possess three cones that interpret colour, with the potential to distinguish between one million colours. Most mammals, except for birds and some insects, are dichromats, and so can only distinguish 10,000 colours. However, in the 1940s scientist H.L. de Vries revealed that some women may be tetrachromats, in possession of a fourth eye cone that may enable them to experience a much greater range of colours.

Colour elicits an emotional rather than rational response. So, when it comes to industrial and creative production, basing our colour selections on human emotion can lead to misjudgment, frustration and errors at every stage of the production line – especially when colour is usually the first decision ahead of form or fabric. Yet, throughout history, scientists, artists and designers alike have faced incredible difficulty in developing and maintaining a shared colour language that communicates and categorises colours as the human eye sees them. A colour language that balances science and creativity.

Following Newton’s early colour wheel in 1692, one of the earliest attempts at defining colour was when Dutch artist A. Boogert wrote a tome exploring colour, hue and tones in mixing watercolours. Over 800 pages long, Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau, was very likely the most comprehensive guide to paint and colour of its time. It was only printed a handful of times.

In the centuries that followed, various theorists and scientists, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to J.C. LeBlon explored the mechanics of colour, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that artist and professor A.H. Munsell combined the art and “science of colour”: http://munsell.com/color-blog/munsell-color-and-science/ into an orderly colour theory. Munsell based his system on what he defined as “perceived equidistance” – the human visual system’s perception of colour. It was the first time colour was formally identified based on three dimensions: hue, value (lightness), and chroma (colour purity), an approach that Coloro – the latest system in the game – has based its own on.

Colour is a fundamental aspect of branding and the consumer’s decision making process, yet the creative production process is still imbued with potential for human error – when creatives pick a colour, when suppliers produce colour, and when marketers analyse it. How many times has the anticipated neutral pink turned ferocious magenta or a vibrant teal become a deep cerulean somewhere along the line due to broadly interpretive approaches to colour selection (“a little lighter”, “a little darker”, “a little stronger”).

In a survey by the Secretariat of the Seoul International Color Expo, 92.6% respondents said colour was fundamental in the consumer decision buying process, as compared to just five percent basing it on physical touch. And research by Color Communications Inc found that it takes 90 seconds for a person to form an opinion of a brand and 62%-90% of those decisions are informed by colour. Colour is intrinsic to making a good first impression – if the colour is wrong, customers may be put off before they have had a chance to get to know the brand or product.

So, 100 years after Munsell’s colour system shook up the market, and 50 years after Pantone introduced the concept of colour selection to the mass market with its colour of the year and forward-thinking marketing strategy, Chinese colour expert company CTIC and Ascential (parent company of WGSN and Cannes Festival of Creativity) created Coloro – a system that aims to redefine our relationship with colour.

Developed in collaboration with 80 fashion industry experts including Christian Kuhna from Adidas, together with WGSN’s trend forecasting resources, Coloro aims to provide a logic and design-based colour language. It uses a model that defines colour based on a distinct 7-digit code representing the point where hue, lightness and chroma intersect, and offers a potential 1.6 million colours for designers to use. As we can interpret more colours on the red and violet ends of the colour spectrum and fewer yellow, green and blue tones, the system is adjusted to reflect this level of visibility and interpretation; on the digital workspace, you’ll see far more red than green as result. The way it’s structured means Coloro can be explored based on logic over interpretation.

Berlin-based industrial designer Hella Jongerius has recently questioned and explored the endless opportunities of colour in her latest exhibition at the London Design Museum. What will it mean for the future – of our wardrobes or the way we see the world – if designers can easily explore colour creativity and ensure their vision is accurately created? We’ve come a long way since water-coloured shades and swatch books. Today, colour deserves the same technological advancement as any layer of the fashion and design world.  

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Jane Monnington Boddy

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