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IXD101- Colour Theory

Colour Theory

The first known theory of colour was developed by Aristotle. He believed that colour was sent down by God through celestial rays of light, that they came from lightness and darkness and from the four elements – earth, fire, air and water. This theory was widely accepted for around 2000 years until it was replaced with Newtons Theory.

During the 1660’s, Issac Newton carried out a series of experiments using sunlight and prisms and theorised that clear white light was comprised of seven separate colours. This is what we know today as the visible colour spectrum. The colours he identified within the rainbow were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These colours make up just a narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye. Our eyes are sensitive to the wavelengths that create the different colours due to cells called cones.


These colours can be divided into 3 groups known as primary, secondary and tertiary colours.

Primary Colours

Primary colours consist of red, yellow and blue and cannot be created by any combination of other colours.

Secondary Colours

Secondary colours are formed by combining the primary colours and these make green, orange and purple.

Tertiary Colours

Tertiary colours are made from a combination of primary and secondary colours such as yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe argued that colour was more than a scientific measure, that it was subjective to the viewer and that colours carried physiological effects.

Colours can also be separated into cool tones and warm tones with each reminding us of things we find in nature like the cool ocean and warm sunny days.

Colour Psychology 

Years of research into the psychology of colour has found that humans are highly influenced by different hues and how they can affect our perceptions of things such as the taste of food and can also represent different emotions to people. The influences of colour differs depending on the age, gender and cultural background of a person.


Colour psychology is used in branding and marketing, with colours having the ability to influence emotion and perception of a service or goods. Red is believed to attract spontaneous purchases while red and yellow together stimulate hunger and with both colours being used in successful fast-food chains such as McDonalds and Burger King, a phenomenon called the ‘Ketchup & Mustard’ theory was developed.

Red is believed to have particularly special psychological effects on human behaviour. A study was conducted in 2014 that consisted of male and female adults and their reaction time to the colours blue and red and how long they perceived each length of time for. The results indicated that the perceived duration of the red screen was longer than the blue and that men in particularly overestimated the duration of the red screen. As well as this, the reaction time to the red screen was faster than those of the blue and this resulted in the correlation of length of time perceived and reaction time. The study was carried out due to a theory that the colour red can be associated with distorted perceptions of time.

A study found that the colour blue accelerated the relaxation process among subjects compared to the usual white lighting. During the late 2000’s, Japanese railway stations had blue lamps installed in train station platforms in hopes that the blue colour would influence the emotions and behaviour of those who were experiencing psychological stress.  The idea was that the blue lights would prevent suicides at those locations and after gathering 10 years of data from 71 locations it was found that there was an 84% reduction. A few years later, Japan also began installing blue streetlights in neighbourhoods and found that crimes decreased by around 9% in those areas. This was also implemented in Scotland and it was thought that the blue lighting would deter people from committing crimes due to the blue colour being associated with police presence or because it would make  criminals unsure of what to expect due to the unusual blue light illuminating the area.

Colour in Culture 


India – red is a very important colour in Indian culture as it represents a particular time in someone’s life such as when a woman gets married she is painted with red henna on her hands and feet and with a red powder in her hair called sindoor.

South Africa – red is associated with mourning, with the red section of the South African flag representative of the sacrifice and violence that occurred during the fight for independence.

China – Red is also a massive part of Chinese culture as it represents happiness, prosperity and luck. Red is worn on to weddings, funerals and on the New Year.

Thailand – Thai tradition has each day of the week has its own colour and God assigned to it. Red is linked to the solar God Surya, who was born on a Sunday.


France – During the 10th century, the French painted the doors of traitors and criminals yellow, with yellow signifying jealousy, weakness and betrayal.

Japan – Yellow represents bravery and wealth. Warriors during the 13 hundreds would wear yellow flowers to show their pledge to the emperor and royal family of Japan.

Africa – Yellow is associated with money, success and high quality and reserved for those of high ranking in many African nations. Egyptians used yellow to represent gold when painting tombs.


China – Unlike the rest of the world, blue is considered a feminine colour in China.

Latin America – In regions with high Catholic populations blue is symbolic of the Virgin Mary who wore a blue robe and headscarf. For this reason, many Latin Americans see blue as a sign of hope and good health.

Middle East – In Judaism, blue represents holiness and divinity. For many countries of the Middle East, blue is representative of heaven, spirituality and immortality as well as safety and protection.

India – the Hindu God Krishna is blue who embodies joy and love.

Egypt – One of the first artifical pignments used by man, Egyptain Blue can be found within tombs on statues and sarcophagi. Acossiated with the live giving river Nile, for Egyptians blue was the colour of the heavens and the universe.


Ireland –  Also known as ‘The Emerald Isle’, Ireland identifies with green due to its green countryside and shamrocks as well as the colour for the patron saint, St. Patrick.

Mexico – After gaining freedom from Spain, Mexico chose green to represent independence in its flag.


China – For many years, pink was not a recognised colour in china until the emerging influence of western culture and now the Chinese word for pink translates to foreign colour.


For centuries, purple dye was extremely rare and very difficult to produce ad as a result purple clothing was very expensive and was reserved for those of high status such as royalty and other rulers.

USA – symbolises honour and courage and is found within the American military’s Purple Heart which is the highest award given to servicemen.


Ukraine – Represents a period in time where the country revolted against their government for their fraudulent presidential election in 2004, known as the Orange Revolution.

Netherlands – The national colour for the Netherlands and the Dutch Royal Family.

Modern Colour

The foundation of modern colour printing was outlined by J. C. LeBlon, which consisted of the use of the primary colours red, yellow and blue to create secondary colours green, purple and orange. Leblon published the first documentation that refers to additive and subtractive colour systems. Additive colour systems are those that use red, green and blue , combining to make white light such as rainbows, TVs, computer screens and mobile devices. Subtractive colour systems are based on the chemical makeup of an object and the light it reflects such as red, blue and yellow and can be mixed together to make black, these also include magenta, cyan and yellow.

During our lecture we discussed the relationships between colours and used a programme, choosing one colour, that would allow us to find the analogous, monochromatic, complimentary and split complementary colours.

Analogous Colours

Analogous colours are groups of hues that are found next to each other on the colour wheel. Colour palettes composed of analogous colours appear easy to look at and harmonious in design and can commonly be found in nature.

Monochromatic Colours

Monochromatic colours are all the tints, shades or tones of a single hue. Tints are made by adding white and shades or tones by adding grey or black. Monochromatic colour schemes can be used to create a sense of visual cohesion within a design.

Complimentary Colours 

Complimentary colours are described as being two apposing hues on the colour wheel which can result in a high contrast palate which makes each colour pop. Often the two colours will consist of one warm and one cold hue which creates what’s known as simultaneous contrast and can create a natural illusion making the colours appear brighter.

Split Complementary Colours

A split complementary colour scheme usually involves 3 colours, choosing one colour and finding its complimentary (opposing colour), then taking the two colours on either side of it.


Colour Accessibility

0.5% of woman and 8% of all men have some form of colour-blindness or colour visual impairment. Colour blindness is  really important topic to know about as a designer of any type working with colour so that whatever you make is accessible to all. For many people, colour blindness makes it difficult to distinguish tones and on a user interface this could potentially eliminate call to action buttons or even text. During the 1940’s, scientists discovered that colour blind subjects were able to distinguish shades better than average with these individuals noticing camouflage where those with normal vision couldn’t. 


Also known as red-green colour blindness, Deuteranopia is the most common type of colour impairment with it making red, green and yellow tones difficult to see.   Those affected with Deuteranopia are less sensitive to green light.


This is another type of red-green colour deficiency. Protanopia affected people are less sensitive to red light.


Tritanopia, often called blue-yellow colour blindness, is rarely found amongst the population. This colour blindness confuses blue with green and yellow with violet.


Monochromacy is known as complete colour-blindness causes those affected to see everything in shades of grey, confusing green and blue, red and black and yellow and white.

Here are some screens with the affects of each type of colour-blindness.

Those with colour blindness rely of luminance contrast which can be either sharp of muted, with the later being the more difficult to discern. When in the initial stages of designing a user interface can be done in greyscale, adding colour to the later stage.

Material Design System

In 2014, Google developed a design system which consists of grid layouts and improving responsive design. It also aids designers in choosing colour palettes for websites, applications and branding. The application is a tool that allows designers to create colour palettes with the primary colour being chosen it will recommend secondary and complimentary colours based on this primary colour. This tool also allows you to see how your primary and secondary colour may look implemented together and in additional the accessibility of your colours in terms of readability of black and white shows with a min % opacity to remain legible. Using my chosen colours from above I looked at this tool.


Why You Feel Hungry When You See The Color Red

Published in IXD101


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