Color psychology: an individual interpretation

A color wheel displaying faces with different emotions

Rosie Schrag | Washtenaw Voice

By: Jenelle Franklin

Staff Writer


When humans see color, it causes subconscious effects that differ from person to person, interpreted as Color Psychology. There are colors that may be inferred as calming to some, but aggressive to others; geographical location, personal upbringing, past events and more can all alter an individual’s perception of color.

The environment around students, faculty and staff tries to accommodate a large number of merging cultures at Washtenaw Community College.

Terry Abrams, a WCC digital media arts and computer sciences instructor, explains the process of reacting to color.

“Color is a sensation, and although we experience color physically with our eyes, our brain is processing it like a sensation,” he said.

“The way humans respond to color is more like the way humans respond to music, or to taste, or to feel,” Abrams said; people digest color individually and develop their own relationship to each.

The University of California Santa Barbara says colors may have many non-verbal associations. People are able to identify some general properties such as describing warm colors as “exciting” and cool colors as “calming,” with neutrals as the best for background color.

While listening to a series of 30-50 words per color, WCC students were asked to select the color they thought most related to what they heard. They chose from: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.

This on-campus experiment was a test of the Wright theory, formulated by Angela Wright in 1984.

The theory finds that the “psychological effects of color are universal,” and are happening worldwide, yet interpreted individually.

“I would choose purple for a preferred classroom color,”  said  student and 18-year-old Chris Civafarani, after completing the six-color experiment in the Student Center.

While listening only to the words such as: health, harmony, calmness, tranquility, which were meant to be associated with “green,” Civafarani selected a purple crayon to signal his perception of the given descriptor words.

Some WCC students reported viewing green, yellow, and white as calming to them and would select a classroom painted similar to those color pallets. This selection of colors can be seen throughout campus and online.

According to WCC Trustee policy 8028, the Policy on Access, Success and Equity for Diverse People, “WCC works to create and maintain a diverse teaching, learning, and work environment that can draw upon the full potential of all individuals in order to provide the very best educational opportunities for all members of our communities.”

“We have such a diverse student body, I am not sure it is possible to achieve a color scheme that frankly is neutral,” said Jason Withrow, a WCC media arts faculty member who teaches web design. “With all the different backgrounds students have, you’re going to end up with combinations that can be off-putting for some people. Culture to culture, some color meanings change depending on what location you are geographically.”

Blue and purple are similar on the color wheel, but according to Withrow, one is significantly harder to incorporate into web design than the other. Blue is the easier color to work with, he says, because of purple’s varying religious connotations.

“It can be very surprising that neutral colors you thought worked well really don’t work at all because they upset someone. (This is because of) their previously developed associations,” Withrow said.

Color psychology is also seen in how a person presents themselves, and how they are perceived by those around them.

Abrams acknowledges conscious and subconscious thoughts when it comes to personal attire choices, along with, “choosing colors based on how we want others to respond to us.”

WCC has hosted events in the past to help students with choosing attire for job interviews and career fairs. WCC employment services said the seminar emphasized dressing well, and while on a budget.

“Dress For Success was partly about what color do you wear if you’re looking for a promotion? If you want to be a leader, wear colors of power, don’t wear colors that are passive, like blues and greens. Instead, wear colors like red and orange – you can go overboard though,” Abrams said.

For example both Abrams and Withrow believe color psychology explains the difference in wearing red jeans around campus and catching much attention, and wearing red jeans in Spain, where the color is a more commonplace sight for fashion.

“People usually reflect the culture they are coming from,” Withrow said.

Politicians must represent their nation or political party correctly, and in a positive light. Politicians’ color choices can make either a good or bad statement, representing either strength or weakness.

“When looking at the political debates and speeches, look at what colors the people are wearing, because they have certain emotional connotations, as well as certain cultural connotations. The colors people wear if they are in-tune with that can be very important,” Abrams said.

“Oftentimes you see the president or leader wearing a red necktie. The red symbolizes power,” Abrams said. On the contrary, yellow such as with Hillary Clinton’s recent debate ensemble, was seen by Abrams as a less typical choice for a world leader.

As the perceptions and interpretations of color vary from person to person based on  current emotion, life events, lighting and individual taste, it is evident that color psychology affects behavior on both a conscious and subconscious level.



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