404 Color theory not found!

Lahesh Kavinda
5 min readApr 22, 2020

Debunking myths about a myth.

There’re at least 4–5 articles every day appear on my social feeds where some random ‘designers’ talk about color theory. How do you talk that much about something that does not exist?!

Okay, calm your horses. First of all ‘color’ is a perception, furthermore a conceptual perception. We perceive it through our sensory organs. Just like something we taste, or the pain of a headache. If we can theorize color, then we should be able to theorize ‘taste’ too. Where is the ‘sugar theory’?

Disclaimer: This is neither another article on ‘how to find a better color palette for your next project’ nor criticism to turn down a certain ideology, but to express the hollowness of an over-rated topic. So proceed with care.

When you refer to the articles which are talking about the color theory, there’s actually no significant difference between each of them. They usually talk about few technical aspects of color but mainly they all try to rationalize the fact that a certain color brings a certain set of emotions or a set of attributes/properties or some kind of a relational model between people and colors. How do you generalize something as a whole if you could get to know it only by perceiving? Yup, I know it’s a bit difficult to digest but hear me out.

So first, how do we perceive something? Hey grandpa, show me blue.. no no this is teal.. I said show me blue.. no grandpa this is green..show me.. shut up!

Grandpa Harold showing me Blue

This would have happened if you ask one of your grandparents to show you Blue. Why is it so? You could say he/she can’t see sh*t. Yes, actually that is a valid answer too. But I wanted to emphasize the fact that each of us, every single person perceive things differently. The Blue comes to your mind when I say Blue, is only Blue to you because ‘Blue’ is a concept that made by you based on the visual perception. There’s no general perception about color. If there was a general perception of ‘Blue’ even a blind man could sense it the same way as you sense it. But his concept of Blue is something different that we will never know. (Same way as a camera doesn’t capture colors. It just captures light). It’s important to understand that we are the ones who create the concept of color later on. Perception depends on several factors. In the sense of perceiving a color, it depends on him/herself, the culture he/she lives in, previous experiences (and obviously other physical factors including vision). Without the person, the color no longer exists. Color always limits to one’s perception and it doesn’t reflect the same idea everywhere else. As an instance, some eastern cultures use White to indicate sorrow, death while some western cultures use it to show purity, angels, and generally good. So it’s not the same feeling when you’re dressed in all white and walking down a street on opposite sides of the world.

There was a color theory article which said that ‘Purple means royalty’. People created the concept of color by themselves, not the other way around. Some royals from some cultures may have used a certain set of colors to associate with their selections. But you can’t generalize the fact that Yellow means vomit or this color means this. I could vomit in rainbow! Again keep in mind that the color is a conceptual perception and a portion of knowledge per se as once it perceived.

King Mswati III — The King and a royal from Swaziland

With that being said you could ask now, how the hell do we adapt color to design? Well, again this is not a write-up on ‘how to decide a better color palette for your next app’. Color wheels, additive/subtractive color models are all born to serve specific technical purposes such as illuminating pixels in a panel or represent a pigment in a printing press. Secondary/tertiary colors, monochromatic, complementary, analogous… all of these are few frameworks to ease up the learning curves. These aren’t part of any theory. My take on adapting the color to design/product (or whatever) is first we need to understand the context. Context includes mainly the nature of the product, who consume it, how they consume it. Let’s say that you’re designing a reading application for senior citizens with a bit of low vision. So there, contrast matters more rather than deciding on what exact color. Although there’s a good practice now where larger brands ‘localize’ their products according to the country/region where the product is being consumed. Localization goes from changing the language to coming up with a whole new appearance for a certain product/service. However it’s far more complex when you have to decide colors when it comes to the product world. There are so many things to consider such as business goals, stakeholder opinions, brands and much more jargon. It’s more of a technical (material) approach rather than a psychological decision when you work on colors (as everything else). So end of the day none of the above matters as long as it’s not commercial or you’re a researcher on your own.

Cool, so if you made this far, congrats! you’re open-minded and curious. Those are two great things to have, keep ’em up. Theorizing something is test it for 1,2,3… to n number of times and check every time it returns the same result under the same condition, or ‘proving’ it is. Perception is not the same under any condition. n number of people perceive n number of things, it can not be generalized. Color is not universal.