The Colour Mauve

Mauve turns 161 years old this year. Its an invented colour first created in 1856 by a British chemist called William Perkin.

Few people realise that Mauve is a product of the industrial revolution and for a while caused quite a stir when introduced (and then popularised) by 19th Century fashion industry. We as a species place great importance on colour and when I found this page on Pinterest it prompted quite a few questions as a designer about colour. Who classifies and categorises colours? How diverse is the cultural value of a colour? What if any psychology is there working in our minds when we see a colour? Is there really a “science of colour”? However imperfect, I’ve tried to answer some of the questions.

Who classifies and categorises colours?

Before 1906 and the introduction of CMYK as a printing method and colour classification process we mostly relied on nature. Colours of the rainbow or citing various flora or fauna as a reference point for the colour to describe. By the 1950s we had Pantone enabling us to specify a colour for printing that could then be used anywhere in the world to obtain the exact same result.

Advances in technology caused revolutions, new mediums. Film (photography and cinema), electronic devices such as television and computer and mobile phone displays. Each has added new classifications for colour to help describe colour and correctly share those colours between us and our devices. Think of the last two decades and the now commonly used standards for colour display of RGB and HSL on the Internet and World Wide Web. We can now very precisely describe a colour for any medium and for any purpose, and we’ve described thousands of them. Yes, even mauve now has precise descriptors, in fact there are several “mauves”. The picture associated with this blog entry shows six stripes of mauve, using the sRGB colour space values.

The creation of so many colours (and the potential for millions) now leads to interesting consequences. For example in 2014 Ingrid Sunderberg produced her lovely colour thesaurus, allocating specific words to specific colours. Her goal was to allocate a word to a colour and facilitate her writing as well as for other writers. To me this is a consolidation of colour values into categories described by words. Someone had to decide which word was in their mind, appropriate for a particular colour in their mind that would describe the colour.

Look at Sunderberg’s thesaurus check at the colour using the word “wine”. Wines have a broad range of colours. For me the colour allocated to “wine” by Sunderberg does not spring to mind when I use that word to describe a colour for the red wines I drink. You will very likely choose different colours and because you have particular taste preferences for wine the colour you choose will align with those taste preferences. Perhaps not a bad description of how we humans used to do it, i.e., describe colours between ourselves by reference to ones in nature.

How diverse is the cultural value of a colour?

ThoughtCo produced the Visual Colour Symbolism Chart by Culture and it gives insight into how different colours are treated by different cultures. Just searching Google for the terms: “the culture of colour” produces millions of hits. It’s valuable to understand that cultural differences arising in the perception and traditional use for colours do exist. Christina Wang wrote this great article on the symbolism of colour and how it varies around the world. The key thing is that different cultures have defined different meanings for similar colours. As a species we don’t appear to be hard wired to particular colours, it’s harder to consider how you should (if you should) cater for this on your website. Of course, you can still ask the question: who decided that a particular colour must have a particular purpose or meaning?

Tradition plays a significant role in this. Some traditions go back a long way, such as the colour brides wear at their wedding, or the colours various cultures associate with good luck and bad luck. But they also show us the extraordinary divergence in taste, value and feeling about colour. Traditions change though and we can see examples of it in the modern usage of colour for such traditional ceremonies such as weddings. Equally interesting has been change in colour tastes accorded to baby clothes depending on their gender.

What if any psychology is there working in our minds when we see a colour?

That seems to be a tough question to answer. There are plenty of claims being made if you do a search of the WWW. But how many of the claims are actually made up of genuine knowledge? It seems that the evidence for what underlies our sense of colour and colour values, seems thin indeed.

These two articles typify what I’m getting at, this one asks the question, is your website colour choice making or breaking it? While this one adds to its authority with a clever infographic. Neither cites any evidence that is verifiable in determining if the claims made are actually valid, you simply have to accept. If you don’t, as some of us will do, continue the search until we found something however vague that supports our particular “colour prejudice”. Sooner or later on the WWW you’ll find something that agrees with the way you are thinking. On top of this we could lump the power of globalisation, global commerce and globally driven trend setting through blogging and social media.

Traditions however old they are should not be used as an authorative source of colour guidance. Colour preferences change and can change rapidly across many cultures. Secondly sources need to be cited. They should be genuine and authorative sources. If not then claims about the psychology of colour or the science of colour that are made are no more or less authorative and informed than you, or your next door neighbour! Finally, the implication of uncritical discussion of colour choice (and use) has consequences that in my opinion, actually narrow choice. They challenge the validity and constrict the diversity of potentially many wonderful sources of colours and colour palettes.

Further information:

For an outstanding podcast on Mauve you can’t go past the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Radio National program, The Science Show and their podcast on: Mauve: The ColourThat Changed the World.

And an interesting new field explained by another recent ABC Science Show podcast: neuro-aesthetics. It may eventually shed light our colour tastes.

Alanis King’s brief but fascinating history of How Traffic Lights Came To Be And Why Green Means Go.

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