Does magenta make me mellow? The truth about how colours affect behaviour

Once upon a time, I thought that my interest in communication was only in words, grammar, and syntax. Thrilling though those subjects are, I’ve discovered that communication runs deeper than characters on a page, or even spoken language. It is something that we experience with every one of our senses.

Visual communication is a huge part of this, but it’s often dismissed as less important, or less fundamental than speech and writing in delivering a message. Truthfully colour, look, and ‘feel’, are some of the most important aspects of a good e-learning course. And alongside my interest in communication, I also have a healthy interest in being sceptical. So when I began researching colour, and I realised that there is a lot of misinformation out there, I decided to write this post and offer some advice based on evidence, and not just guesswork.

I’m sure that at some point you’ve heard rumours about which colours mean what and how they influence behaviour. And if you Google ‘what do colours mean’, there are many websites that are all too eager to tell you which colour signifies what. It’s tempting to just go with the flow here and follow the common knowledge, but we need to think smarter than that. So with my rallying cry I ask, ‘where are the citations?’

In my investigation, I’ve heard people say that a famous fast-food restaurant uses red because red invokes hunger, as it’s the colour of blood. I’ve heard the same said for boxing gloves. But it seems that these are often half-truths, or more often, just word of mouth. In the real world, colour isn’t so easily categorised.

The interpretation of a colour is related to culture, historical significance, and a whole host of other influencing factors. For instance, in Chinese culture, red is acknowledged to represent luck, while digital website sources in England say that red signifies ‘caution, blood, and war’. Contrast this with some parts of India, where red can signify matrimony (do you want your wedding decorations to suggest caution, blood and war?).

A great example of just how our perception of colour changes with our culture occurred in recent UK history. Up until the 1920s, pink was a boys’ colour. This all changed when blue began to signify male professions.

So whether colours have cross-cultural meaning is an unknown, and we can’t really be sure that red signifies blood, or invokes hunger, or luck. It might be for some of us, it might not for others. So feel free next time someone tells you that blue is ‘calming’, to ask whether they’d feel the same if they had a profound, paralysing fear of the Smurfs, or if every time they saw the colour blue someone pelted them with rotten tomatoes. Really, as with everything, the only knowledge that we have is that colour is what the cultural context makes of it.

With that in mind, considering your audience is the key to semiotic success. Who are you creating a learning programme for? What styles and cultural norms do they comply with, and what are their needs? Which colours do they believe are important, and do certain colours have significant meanings in their culture? Never underestimate the value of these questions. The right hue in one screen can be an invaluable tool for drawing a learner’s attention, and strong, garish colours will quite often ruin an otherwise fantastic design. But just remember that colour is subjective and culturally influenced, it’s not as simple as some would have you believe.