For most people, one of the first decisions of the day concerns color preference. College students learn that whether they are choosing an outfit for a job interview, designing a new product, or creating a Web site, the colors they choose greatly affect their final result. Psychologists report that color impression can account for 60 to 70 percent of consumer reaction. Therefore, understanding people’s color preferences becomes an important learning tool.
Color preferences change as a person develops and are in part determined by a person’s economic and social status. Education, environment, climate, and family heritage influence people’s favorite colors. Furthermore, people have color preferences for different objects like clothing, home decorations, and cars. A person may prefer a blue shirt, yellow walls, and a red car. Babies respond more readily to bright, primary colors than to pastel colors. The favorite color of most preschool children, up to the age of five, is bright red. Young children between five and ten years old prefer bright yellow.
As people grow and mature, their color preferences change. Adults may have learned to associate red with negative things, such as blood and fire, and so their color preference changes from childhood to adulthood. Adults have been found cross-culturally to favor blue over other colors. Adult women generally prefer blue-based colors, whereas men tend to prefer yellow-based tints. Even education levels and the degree of cultural sophistication seem to affect people’s color preferences. In general, highly educated and sophisticated people favor complex colors, those mixed with shades of black. In contrast, people with less education and lower income favor low-intensity, simple, or pure colors.
People respond differently to various colors depending also upon the climatic conditions in which they live. For example, Scandinavians have a preference for light yellows, bright whites, and sky blues, in contrast to their long, dark winter nights. San Franciscans, who live in an area that is often foggy and overcast, generally are not fond of gray. Conversely, cool gray is a popular color among people in Miami’s sunny, hot, and humid climate.
Ethnic heritage and traditions also affect color preferences. For instance, American couples most often prefer to dress brides in white, representing purity. Chinese typically wear white to funerals and prefer black or red colors for their wedding dresses, since these colors represent joy in their culture. Americans traditionally dress their new-borns in blue or pink according to gender rather than personal individual preference.
Color preferences have changed over time. In the mid-1800s, bright colors were popular, but they were replaced by more subdued tertiary colors such as muddy reds, greens, browns, blues, pinks, and ambers in the 1870s. Pastel and cream colors came back into fashion in the 1890s, and were popular during the latter part of Queen Victoria’s (1819–1901) reign. But as fashions changed and furniture became more ornate, heavier, and more elaborate, room colors also became richer and darker.
Certain color preferences seem universal, such as that of “warm” and “cool” colors. People perceive red, orange, and yellow to be warm colors, reflecting the natural association with the hot sun and flames. Blue and green shades are considered cool, in relation to cool water and shady leaves. Warm colors generally include magenta, red, orange, yellow, and yellow-green. Warm colors speed up our perception of time and produce feelings that are cozy and inviting. These colors are associated with excitement, happiness, and comfort. Cool colors generally include violet, blue, and green. Emotions associated with cool colors range from calm and peace to sadness, withdrawal, and repression.
Color-preference trends help sell products. Advertisers, fashion designers, and auto manufactures know that color influences the approval of or negative response to products or services. Commercials change fashion and cultural icons—Santa Claus, for example, used to wear a blue or green suit until Coca-Cola dressed him in their trademark colors red and white. Marketers use color preferences in products and advertising based on research and market tests. Along with personal preference, the typical meanings and effects of color are factors in product development and promotion. This happens because adults habitually relate colors to emotions.
Red elevates blood pressure, respiratory rate, and appetite. Red symbolizes heat, blood, passion, love, power, excitement, vitality, and aggression. In advertising, red grabs attention and stimulates people to make quick decisions. Pink, associated with sweetness, helps sell pastries and candies.
Orange causes people to feel energetic and is often found in the décor of fast food restaurants. Yellow represents the sun and is considered a spiritual color that symbolizes deity in many religions. Because yellow is the first color human eyes process, it attracts attention in advertising.
Indian mystics favor green because they believe it to be a combination of balance and harmony. Green, a sacred color to the Egyptians, represents the promise and rejuvenation of spring. In the Middle Ages, brides wore green to represent fertility. Green helps people relax, which makes it a popular color in hospitals.
Blue, the favorite color of adults, is disliked as a color around food. Most people prefer to dine surrounded by food-related colors, such as red strawberries, green apples, yellow bananas, and brown breads. Blue is the preferred color to wear to a job interview because people associate blue with loyalty and trustfulness.
Purple became related to perceptions of royalty and richness because the color was difficult to produce in ancient times. People think of luxury when they view purple. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) favored purple lighting to enhance his creativity.
Brown is favored by men more than women. Connected to the earth and wood, brown is thought to represent solidity and strength.
Black, a color preferred by many for clothing, represents power, sophistication, and formality. Black also has contrary associations with witches and criminals. Black aids advertising materials by making other colors stand out in contrast and is the preferred type color for Web sites.
White represents cleanliness and purity to many people, who prefer white for automobiles, clothing, and interior design. White automobiles show up best at night. White clothing and interior spaces feel cooler in warm climates.
Color affects people, every day of their lives, on both the conscious and subconscious levels. With a thorough understanding of the effects of color preference, businesses can make wise decisions about product development and marketing. Individuals who understand their color preferences can make wise choices when selecting clothing, home furnishings, and automobiles.
SEE ALSO Bigotry; Colorism; Hierarchy; Prejudice; Racism; Stratification
Fehrman, Kenneth R., and Cherie Fehrman. 2004. Color: The Secret Influence. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Zentner, Marcel. 2001. Preferences for Colours and Colour-emotion Combinations in Early Childhood. In Developmental Science 4: 389–398.