The Psychology of Colour: Coke red and Yellow Pages yellow and Owens-Corning pink and BP green, Cadbury purple, Easy orange and IBM blue…

I love a rainbow of colour.

That’s obvious from my bookshelves alone, but my love of colours goes back a long way. Being part of an arty family, I always had access to a box of Derwent artist pencils. I loved crayons, but I suspect that my parents thought they were a bit “working class”.  I find pure beauty in a row of pencils arranged by colour, and I quite like reading the names of colours. What I don’t take much joy in is actually having to arrange them. Somehow, I feel this takes my quirky hobby out of the OCD colour spectrum. I’m much too rebellious in that way. I absolutely loathe fiddley tasks like julienning carrots. I harbour dark egodystonic thoughts about messing up people’s cutlery drawers just to stir them. But I do love ordered colour. This took me six hours. All the white books have their own shelves, as do the books with too many colours on the spine to categorise.

Perhaps I like ordering colours because it’s fickle, and there is no real precise method of measurement involved. At least, it’s not a method of measurement that’s accessible to everyone in exactly the same way. You can measure a julienned carrot stick with a ruler, and you can refer to the alphabet when the CDs get out of order, but with colour it is trickier.

Every colour you’re ever likely to see has been named, and is owned byPantone. You can even buy a Pantone tool which will scan a surface and tell you what colour it is. But isn’t this a bit like checking the weather forecast instead of looking out the window? (Ah, the wisdom of Billy Connolly). Can’t you just look at a surface and know it’s blue? Does it matter if it’s ‘duck egg blue’, ‘royal blue’, or ‘delft blue’? Isn’t blue basically just blue when you whittle it down? And furthermore, is there much point if your boyfriend still argues with you that the green house is blue? Should you tell him he’s wrong, that in fact it’s not ‘blue’ it’s ‘#12-0313 TPX seafoam green?’

I had this very argument with my boyfriend when I was sixteen. The method used to solve the argument was simple. He asked his mate what colour the house was.  His mate said it was definitely blue, and he lived in the house, so he should know. That was the end of it. If only I knew then what I know now. The only cones and rods my boyfriend was interested in are exactly the ones you’re thinking a sixteen year old boy would be interested in.

In fact, men and women see colour slightly differently. Statistically, the chances are that the house probably was ‘sea foam’. Not only do women have an increased chance of having stronger verbal skills than men, but they also tend to have more photo pigments in their eyes. A really crude way of explaining colour perception is that most people have about three photopigments, whereas people with colour-blindness tend to have only two. Interestingly, about 1% of women have a fourth colour photopigment, meaning that they can perceive significantly more bands of colour than both men and women who only have three photopigments. It is yet to be determined how closely this is correlated with being a smart arse.

A large percentage of people who suffer some degree of colour-blindness don’t even realise they’re colour-challenged. Potentially, they’d only discover it if they struggled with electronics, studied first year psychology, or tried to become a pilot (who could forget Dwayne’s reaction on Little Miss Sunshine?).

Speaking of sex differences, I was also interested to learn that pink was originally associated with little boys, and it was blue which was associated with little girls. In Christian tradition, red was associated with masculinity, and its ‘little’ sibling pink was used for boys. Blue on the other hand, was associated the Virgin Mary and therefore considered feminine. Brides also used to wear blue wedding dresses as a symbol of virginity, until bleaching fabric became more of symbol of wealth and status. The association with blue for boys probably originates from WWI uniforms, and it wasn’t until the 1940s that pink became a ‘girl’ colour. You can read further about the history of our gender stereotyping of colour here.

Colour also satisfies our desires to be constantly naming things. It’s an important part of our language development, and our need for meaning-making. Genie, the ‘wild child’ rescued by scientists from one of the world’s most horrific cases of abuse and neglect was obsessed with naming things, particularly colours. Not satisfied with turquoise, teal and cerulean, she became incredibly frustrated when, upon encountering a colour shed never seen before, no one could offer her a more specific term.

As silly as it sounds, the naming colours is now a regulated. This is particularly true in advertising, since, as this article points out, colour is our next limited resource. In advertising, colour is commodity.

Companies take their colours very seriously, as you’ll see


‘Cadbury purple’ cannot be used by any other manufacturer of chocolate.


Heinz has exclusive rights to the colour of their turquoise cans.


Coke owns it. They own Santa too.


BP were successful in a legal battle with an Irish competitor for ‘their’ colour. green


In 2004, mobile company Orange and upstart easyMobile got into a spatover the colour orange.


Lots of companies have piggy-backed pink logs and pink products to cement themselves in people’s minds as doing something for breast cancer. What you might not know is that Owens–Corning, the insulation company known for their The Pink Panther branding, have even registered the term “PINK“.  Thankfully, they’ve only registered the upper-case version, so you can say “pink” in an everyday voice (but don’t shout it, or you’ll be in trouble).

And that song you learnt in kinder? Red and yellow and pink and green,purple and orange and blue…it’s by Arthur Hamilton, but probably belongs to Lifesavers.

Imagine the arguments that could have been solved in the Nineties if only we’d had access to Wikipedia and a Pantone colour tool? Clearly, this relationship with my very sweet but colour-challenged boyfriend was not meant to be. However, I now I have a husband who loves to julienne 16-1361 TCXs. I win.

Further reading

Pantone Food creations

Jameson, K. A., Highnote, S. M., & Wasserman, L. M. (2001). Richer color experience in observers with multiple opsin genes. Psychonomic bulletin and review, 8, 244-261.

Business colour trends