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The Hidden Dimensions of Color

Think there's nothing more to a color than whether it's blue, red or green? If so, hold onto your hat. On this, the first episode of our new interview based format, Architectural Color Consultant Amy Krane introduces our listeners to trained Color Consultant, Researcher and Interior Designer,  Ellen Divers, who has spent the better part of the last decade studying how humans perceive color. Her findings will change the way you choose colors for your space forever.




Amy: Color is the foundation of great design. It can settle a building into its landscape. It can make an unattractive structural detail just disappear, and it can change your mood in a room instantly. Welcome to Let's Talk Color. I'm Amy Krane, architectural color consultant at Amy Krane Color.

I'm a color expert and use color to transform spaces and products from the ordinary to the sublime. As a paint color specialist, realtor, and design writer, I have my pulse on what's happening in the world of color. In each episode, I'll reveal best practices for choosing color by introducing you to masters of color for the built world. So throw out those paint chips taped to your walls and let's get started.

My guest today is Ellen Divers. Ellen and I met during color training at the International Association of Color Consultants and Designers years ago. And since then, she's been knee-deep in color research. And today we're going to hear about how her findings can enhance or inform your process when choosing colors. So for all of you budding color consultants out there, this may be a game changer.

So Ellen, give it to us in a nutshell. What was your research attempting to prove or to change?


Ellen: Well, I mean, my work is about the thought process that designers use to make color decisions. I'm just trying to answer the question, how do I know that the colors I've chosen for this project are good for the people who will use it? I've studied the research of others, I've conducted my own study, and now I'm developing a rational process for choosing color palettes that can give designers just more confidence that their choices are a good fit for the project.

Amy: That sounds incredibly useful. So what was your journey up to this point?


Ellen: Well, I wondered about the psychology of color as far back as college where I majored in psychology. I used color in many different ways up until about 14 years ago when I became interested more specifically in how we apply color in the environment. Then I studied color application for architecture, but it did not point me to the research that actually could help a designer with day-to-day decisions about color palettes.

Especially the ones that really matter, such as for spaces that house people who are in fragile mental or physical conditions. So I started reading research on my own, and eventually I came upon what I call the study that changed everything for me. I thought this study really had the potential to change the way we conceive and execute color design. So I decided to go back to school for interior design. And while I was there, I conducted my own color study.

And since that time, I've been presenting at conferences, publishing papers, and I'm now working on what has been the goal all along, a course to teach this novel way of approaching color design.


Amy: That's fantastic. I can't wait to tell people about it when it's out there and ready for the public. You know our listeners have often heard us talk about the three dimensions of color. Hue, which is what people know as color, basically. Is it green? Is it red? Is it orange?

Chroma, which talks about the purity of a color, and value, which is a fancy way of talking about lightness and darkness. How is this new approach different from the old approach when talking about color?


Ellen: Well, there has been way too much focus on hue, that is, whether a color is red or green or purple in the last 400 years. And that was when Newton discovered the color spectrum. And really since then, Roy G. Biv became the only way that we have been talking about researching color.

People have been trying to force fit the very complex human response to color into six shoe boxes, which are the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. And the reality is, it just doesn't work. We're taught that color psychology says red is considered aggressive or passionate, for instance. Yellow is cheerful. Orange is exciting. Blue is calming. Green is refreshing. And purple mysterious.

Although we know personal associations and predilections can eclipse these generalizations. Yes, we definitely claim that red is exciting, that it's passionate, and even that it's alarming. But I wonder, would you use those same words to describe pink or dark red or rosy neutral? Of course not. If anything, they are the opposite of exciting, passionate, and alarming. But these are all colors in the red family, right?

These internal contradictions and meaning within a hue is a huge limitation because it doesn't allow for useful generalizations. My research and that of others suggests that we should be focusing less on hue and looking instead at the dimensions of value and chroma because people's response to them are more consistent and reliable.


Amy: Are they really? That's surprising. So how does focusing on value and chroma change how we consider and then choose colors?

Ellen: Well, we're actually talking about an intuitive color language, okay, to start off with, and I'm certain that your audience already knows and uses this language, even if they haven't had the opportunity to understand how it works or how to leverage it. But let's talk about the keywords in this way of thinking about color. First, we have pale, you know light colors, dark, vivid, and muted. Those are four key categories that we're looking at.

Everyone knows that the terms light and dark have really deep visceral connotations, right? We use these terms in everyday language to convey emotions. If we say he is in a dark mood, we all know what this means. Stay away. You know He might lash out at you. I think most people understand that darkness is associated with power and sometimes in a negative way. On the other hand, if we describe Maria's mood as being light, the meaning is quite opposite. She's happy.

We don't need to stay out of her way. Vivid and muted are two more words that have meaning beyond the color context. If we say he had a vivid memory of that day, we understand that those events were clear and very apparent, much like the vivid hues. On the other hand, if I say the response to her proposal was muted, it's quite the opposite because muted means quiet, low energy. So it really isn't a stretch to say that all of these meanings are connected to the meanings of color.

Amy: Yeah. Yeah. I see that now. So can you explain how they're connected to colors?


Ellen: Okay, so I'm going to ask you to visualize color. I have to say it's the first time I've talked about color without the benefit of a slide. So you'll have to use your mind's eye to do this.


Amy: You go, girl.


Ellen: I want you to picture a dark red, which we might call a deep burgundy, a dark midnight blue, and a deep forest green. Put them close together in your mind.

Now, I'm going to give you a pair of words and ask you to choose the one that you think fits best with this collection of colors. Here goes. Would you describe these dark colors as more serious or more cheerful?


Amy: Serious.


Ellen: My subjects agree with you. They said they were serious. Are they heavy or light?


Amy: Heavy? Yeah.


Ellen: My subject said the same thing. What about mature or young?


Amy: Mature. I say mature. Yes.


Ellen: Well, that's exactly what my subject said as well. So you can see what's happening here. Despite being different hues, these colors actually have a lot in common when it comes to other types of meaning.


Amy: So how we interpret pale colors is the opposite of the way we do dark colors?


Ellen: Yep, that's right. And pale was described by subjects as cheerful, light, and young, also calm and soft, by the way.

The vivid and muted categories have some opposite connotations as well. In general, vivid colors are more energetic, cheerful, friendly, while the muted colors are relaxed, not all that cheerful, nor that friendly. What's exciting about this approach is that it allows us to make these much-needed generalizations. But Ellen, we already had generalizations about colors. Remember, red is passionate, blue is calming.

Amy: I guess what you're saying now is we have more generalizations, and this affords us a more nuanced and accurate approach to choosing colors. Okay. Show us how to use this method.


Ellen: Okay. So if I know that I want a space to read as friendly and I know that grey and neutral colors I've selected do not really convey that, then I can make sure I consciously add colors to the palette that people do interpret as friendly. And that would be mainly colors that have more chroma in them than your greyish colors, right?



Ellens: So designing with color is very similar to the process of cooking. Sometimes I call it cooking with color. Because if you understand the flavor profiles, in this case, these core color profiles, if you understand the flavor profiles of your ingredients, then you can make combinations of flavors that balance each other and that are pleasing to the palate.


Amy: That makes sense. So will it affect a viewer more that what I'm looking at is red, for instance, or that it's dark or that it's muted? I mean, are you saying the effects of chroma and value eclipse the effects of the hue we've chosen?

Ellen: I would say that if it's a vivid red, then hue will likely have the strongest effect, in part because, well, we noticed at first his vivid colors stand out. But if it's not a vivid color, then the emotional qualities of dark or pale or muted will take precedence.


Amy: So hue value and chroma contribute different information. Okay.

Ellen: I suspect that the brain may prioritize value, lightness and darkness first because it's the one dimension of color that most helps us read our environment. Think about this. If you turn a color photo of a landscape or an urban scape into grayscale, you don't lose information about depth or height or width or relative placement of objects, nor the sun's position based on the shadows. And this is obviously really useful information for humans trying to get around in the environment.

Now, on the other hand, chroma tells us what we need to notice in that environment. We said earlier that perceptually vivid red stands out more than a muted red. A muted red, in fact, is closer to grey. So it blends into the background and also takes on some of the meaning of grey. Right.


Amy: Got it. Well, that was a great analogy you gave before about the photograph. So how do we think about Hue in this new paradigm, this new way of thinking?

Ellen: Well, this may come as a surprise, but you can execute the same design in a different hue and still retain the core message and emotional signature as long as you keep value in chroma constant. Hue simply modulates the message somewhat. What do I mean by that?


Amy: Yes. What do you mean by that, Ellen?


Ellen: Remember when I asked you to visualize the dark red, the dark blue, and the dark green?

Well, if you're designing a space that you want to project maturity and power, you could successfully convey those qualities using dark red, dark blue, or dark green, or any other dark color. Each version would convey maturity and power, but the red version would be warmer, and it would probably feel more advancing. And it may include associations that we have with dark objects like you know red wine. The blue version would be cooler and a little more receding, right, along with all the other associations that blue brings with it.

The green one would not be quite as cool as blue, but perhaps it has associations related to nature. The effective hue is a bit like applying a color filter to a photo. The content of the scene doesn't change, but it gains additional meaning through the symbolic and associative meanings related to hue.


Amy: Got it. Well, I love that analogy also about a filter to a photo. It really helps one translate this new way of thinking in the world of visuals as we know them.

You know for my part, I send an in-depth questionnaire to my clients, whether it's a virtual or an on-site color consultation. I ask them a lot of questions about every aspect of what kind of colors they want to surround themselves with. And in that questionnaire, I also ask if they like clear or muted colors. And I have to admit, a lot of people are stumped by this question.

They've either never heard those terms in conjunction with colors or never thought about it. And that's why I asked them to also submit inspirational photos to help explain what they say they think they like. Sometimes people can't articulate a concept, especially one related to a visual, but they can show it.

Do you think this will make your system valuable for designers but difficult for the laymen to grasp because they don't necessarily know what a clear color is or a muted color is or vivid for that matter?


Ellen: Well, my system is really for anyone because laypeople and designers answer the survey the same way. So I suspect there's an internal language that is developed alongside evolution. But it is something that people you know once you understand it, it's something that you can show them and explain to them, to your clients.

It might help them.


Amy: Got it. So how do we consider hue with chroma and value together practically in the field when we're choosing colors for our clients or ourselves? Give us an example of how to use these three dimensions of colors together to specify any particular color palette.


Ellen: What I'm recommending is that you begin the design by selecting the primary color category.

And again, we're talking about the dark, pale, vivid, muted categories first. You know based on looking at the terms associated with it, and by the way, if you go to my website, ellendiversdesign. com, I have a tab on research and my articles and different things are there like if you want to go read about this. So I have organized the responses to the survey on what I call the color compass.

So if you look up the article called the compass and the map, you can get this compass. And the reason I put it in a compass form is because what's the first thing you do when you're going to go on a trip? You have to know, are you going north, south, east, or west? All right? So I think you need to make that decision early on. So is the space going to be basically done with pale colors? Or is it going to be a dark space? Is it going to be kind of a vivid space or a muted one? You know At this point, you really don't even need to think about hue. It doesn't matter, okay?

Then you decide what other attributes you want to convey, look back at your color compass, at other attributes that you'd like to include in the design, and you choose another color category.


Amy: Again, you're still not talking about hue? You're just saying, for example, if you're creating a space with mostly light colors, do you want to pair the light colors with vivid or dark colors or muted colors?  And your choice of each will create a completely different emotional response based on which you pair.


Ellen: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And once you've established the levels of value and chroma, then you start testing the hues.


Amy: Got it. It's like the way to finesse it.


Ellen: Exactly. That's what it is.


Amy: Yeah. Okay. Got it. So I'd imagine using this system would be definitely helpful in residential settings, really all settings, but even more essential in some kind of institution, perhaps a school, or healthcare, right?

Ellen: Yep, yep. You know in residential design, your instincts and your trend awareness are likely enough because your clients are going to be telling you whether the colors you're choosing for them work for them or not.


Amy: Right, right. And of course, as an experienced color consultant, we use more than our knowledge of trends and instincts. You know I keep factors like flow, cohesion, and balance at the forefront of my mind when I'm designing a residential palette.

And I layer that holistic approach on top of my own aesthetics, my design experience, color psychology, and last but not least, my clients' desires to be surrounded by particular colors that I have learned, they respond to and they love. But public settings like healthcare needs to be approached differently, right?


Ellen: That's right. In public spaces, especially healthcare, designers are making these decisions for people they will never meet.

There is no one to tell them if they are on track. And also, they have to often justify to somebody, why are you choosing these colors? You know people who go to clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes are often in frail physical or emotional states. So the color choices a designer makes really do have real-life consequences. We owe it to anyone whose health confines them to a particular place to make sure that world is as comfortable as possible. And designers need an objective way to feel confident that they're making reasonable choices.

Amy: Yeah, that makes sense, Ellen. I mean, obviously, everyone knows any space that we design should look good. It should be pleasing and enjoyable to be in. But it can convey so much more. It can work so much harder. It can function at a completely different level if you pay attention to this design principle and create a space that emotionally helps the patients there, right?

Ellen: That's exactly right. Because you know they feel bad enough. You don't want to make them feel worse by making them feel edgier because colors are too wild or bored out of their minds because they're too restrained. And I also go online and I do research to see you know what's the hottest thing people are now doing. And you know I just have to shake my head because I think designers who don't truly understand the value in chroma dimension of meaning.

Follow along with the idea, for instance, that blue is calming you know and the green is relaxing. And they limit themselves to blue and green, which is becoming now an institutional color. Like Green used to be, you know now it's turning into, "Oh, my God, don't give me another blue and green space." Because you can create a relaxing space using a soft beach.

You know I mean, you can use other colors and not just that, but as you and I learned in our courses with the IACC-NA, that Frank Manke would talk so much about the need to balance warm and cool. You know and when people latch onto the cool colors because they're relaxing, they're depriving people of the comfort of warmth. You know and so once you understand how value in chroma shapes meaning, it just gives you a huge amount of freedom to get really creative and to follow your instincts.

I think designers who are getting started or just aren't as confident with color don't want to take big chances, and I totally understand that. And I think this approach that I'm taking will give them the confidence to you know take a leap and take a chance because I'm organizing it in such a way that they can't screw it up. You know


Amy: Yes. Right. So don’t be wild and don’t make willy-nilly decisions that have no rationality.

I like how you used the word rational in the very beginning when you described what you're creating here. So make rational decisions with all of the information you have and all of the tools and therefore pick the perfect palette. I love alliteration. Pick the perfect palette. Ellen, I can't tell you how important I think balance is in a space. And I really, really think if Frank Manke taught us anything, it's how important it is to mix cool and warm colors in an environment.

Ellen, this was fascinating. Thank you so much. And I hope our listeners learned a lot. I think they will if they pay attention. And I can't wait to see when your class comes out because I do get calls from budding color consultants quite often saying, "Where should I study?" And I would love to add your course to my recommendations.


Ellen: Thank you for having me, Amy.





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