Colour - It's Personal (using orange in graphic design)

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In my professional life, colour has, of course, played a key part in my work, whether it be graphic design (for professional services, education or publishing); photography; or fine art – colour rules.

So, if colour is personal – and it is – how can designers, photographers and artists work with colour in order to have the best or most desired effect on an audience?

Firstly, it’s important to think about exactly what colour is. We all interact with the world through colour perceptors in our eyes – rods (which see b&w) and cones (which see colour). Colour itself has 3 determining factors, realised in scales; Hue (the actual colour value), Value (light to dark) and Chroma (vivid to dull).

Our reaction to colour is also soulful as well as mental

These are hard and fast scientific rationale for how we see colour, but our reaction to colour is also soulful as well as mental – people change their reactions to colours throughout life based on their life experiences (known as schema). Colour is a silent and emotional language and we all subconsciously associate it with different life events – there are 3 types of life-event-based colour associations: Universal, Cultural, and Individual.

Think about how you react to different colours in your everyday. Would you agree that red increases your heart rate and makes you want to move? (It’s been proven that you’ll talk faster and eat faster if you’re in a red room). Blue apparently calms the viewer and relaxes, have you experienced this?

The colour that I wanted to talk a little about here is orange. I was recently reminded of a television advert that had a great impact on me at the time (Aired sometime between 1999 and 2002).

The visual style of the advert is striking, being almost black and white with the only truly discernible colour being that of the orange squares on people’s hands. It creates a poignant effect by the contrast offered, and really works on making the viewer consider the significance of the orange square.

Orange actually sent me a videotape (yes I said videotape) of the original studio recording at the time which I now treasure. The advert addressed Universal, Cultural, and Individual colour association concerns in showing people’s hands from all walks of life, different races and age groups. In addition, the opening of palms is symbolic of giving and receiving, plus openness and honesty.

I regularly create visual designs for eLearning programs and, in my opinion, it’s key to produce creative solutions that successfully assist data-retention through inducing positive emotional states.

There’s a lot to learn from the advertising industry actually – the key aims of adverts, of course, being to aid data-retention (products need to be memorable) and also convey feelings of trust, positive emotional association and cultural connections (the idea being to relate to the audience and also nurture pre-purchase decision schema).

The colour orange facilitates an increased oxygen supply to the brain, thus stimulating cognitive activity

The colour orange facilitates an increased oxygen supply to the brain, thus stimulating cognitive activity. In this vein, orange is also known to nurture feelings of (amongst others) happiness, enthusiasm, fascination, determination, success, encouragement, change and stimulation/energy. It is true, at least in western cultures anyway, that orange could stimulate and engender enthusiasm for learning. Orange also appeals to younger audiences.

Thinking beyond western audiences, in Asia-Pacific countries, orange conveys feelings of love, happiness, humility, good health and immortality, whereas in India for example, it conveys death and conjures up images of Hindu monks' robes or the death shroud of a married woman.

To balance these extremes, in many other cultures in conveys images of nature, in particular animals. In another stark contrast, the USA sees orange as the conveyor of either hazards or cheapness (in retail environments).

Speaking further of the colour orange being seen as an indicator of cheapness in the USA, a hotdog company called Wienerschnitzel, with hundreds of branches across the USA, added a small amount of orange to their buildings in an attempt to subversively convey the message to buyers that their hot dogs were priced lowly.

The company saw its sales increase by 7% after the colour addition. I would argue here that other factors could have come into play - for example, the fact that orange appeals to a younger audience and is seen as happy and energising could have attracted yet more buyers into the store, rather than it denoting budget prices.

In further considering geographical reactions to colours, we must consider that there is a language barrier; some languages have no word for orange and as such this could affect a viewer’s interpretation. Would emotions conveyed by neighbouring yellow and red be defaulted to?

"The Shona language in Zimbabwe and the Boas language in Liberia have no words which distinguish red from orange. Therefore, people fail to perceive different colours because of language limitations"

Bortoli and Maroto

Finally, another place where orange is prevalent is as part of our everyday driving. As you arrive at a set of traffic lights, orange makes you think; you either have to slow down and prepare to stop, or you have to get ready to pull away.

You have to engage the gears and thus engage your brain. If you’re sat at traffic lights for a few moments at a red light, you can apply the handbrake and switch off from driving for a moment - look around at the view, speak to your passenger, etc.

The moment the light goes orange, you have to re-engage. This process of engagement or disengagement could be subconsciously transferred (by those residents of countries that have an orange centre light on traffic lights) to learning activities. If you’re shown blocks of orange before and after a specific learning activity, your pre-schema could almost subconsciously be switching your brain on and off – to some slight degree anyway.

More research is needed in this area of course, but it’s perhaps an interesting thought to consider, as well as any parallel daily examples of the effect of colour for any designer creating visuals for eLearning programs.

To conclude, I suggest that orange would be a very effective colour to carefully and considerately experiment with as part of any designer’s toolkit when creating learning material/resources, or indeed, as in the case of the Orange advert, within marketing collateral or advertisement work. It’s a really powerful, versatile and flexible colour. It would seem that orange could definitely have a very positive effect on audiences across many cultures.

The future's bright, the future's orange?


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