Colour naming in design and architecture

Why is colour naming important in design and architecture?

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Designers and architects often choose colours in their practice based on how they look and the sensations they evoke, without the use of language. In 2016, Linda Holtzschue explained that designers use colour with their eyes, not with words. The question then arises, why is colour naming important in design and architecture?

Colour naming is relevant in a continually changing visual world
Photo Aleksandar Pasaric, Pexels

People use natural language in their everyday colour communication tasks—such as describing the colour of a garment or a building—in a continually changing visual world. For example, the residents of a “pink” landmark tower block in Hackney, London are campaigning against changing the colour of its exterior because it would harm their day-to-day living experience.

A designer has to refer to a written brief and also has to talk with clients and colleagues about all aspects of the project, including colour. The visual appearance and linguistic description of a colour are like the obverse and reverse faces of a coin: distinctly different, yet inseparably linked.

Colour naming refers to the intriguing cognitive capacity to organise millions of discriminable colours into a smaller set of categories named, for example as yellow, turquoise or olive green. Colour names are used to describe regions of the colour space with empirical significance and play an important role in recognising and remembering coloured objects under various viewing conditions.

Consider as an example, the vital decision that you are about to take regarding the edibility of a banana. The wavelength composition of the light reflected from its surface changes based on whether you see the fruit under direct sunlight at midday or just before sunset. Yet, to a great extent, you are able to assign a constant colour category, yellow in this case, to decide that the fruit is edible. But if the colour name you chose was green, brown or black you might decide otherwise. Therefore, the experience of colour is the result of both bottom-up and top-down operations, leading the brain to discount the continuous fluctuations in illumination conditions and obtain what is necessary for interpretation. According to neurobiologist Semir Zeki, “We see in order to be able to acquire knowledge about this world.”

Colour naming vary across languages, lexically, in number, and in range of reference
Photo Luis Quintero, Pexels

Colour names vary across languages, lexically, in number, and in range of reference. In some languages (e.g. old Welsh), a term known as blue might also include what we call green; in others (e.g. Greek, Russian), the English blue might be divided into light and dark segments. In most languages, the number of names to describe colour is extensive as that makes colour communication easier. Women in particular surpass men in the richness of their colour vocabularies and use more often hyponyms (e.g. coral, beige, lilac) whereas men tend to use a combination of common terms (e.g. red-yellow, brownish purple) or with modifiers (e.g. dark green, pale yellow). On the other hand, like all words, colour names are subject to fashion and may change their meanings over time.

Colour naming and colour diversity are not a surprise in people-centered design
Photo Anderson Guerra, Pexels

Colour diversity is not a surprise in people-centered design, which requires understanding of both the physical and the cognitive capabilities of the audience it is addressed to. This need for better understanding calls for the development of new technologies through interdisciplinary research that will benefit each discipline as well as society as a whole. It is now feasible to crowdsource big datasets of colour naming responses from linguistically and demographically diverse populations, which can be used to train machine learning algorithms that map colour sensations to cognitive aspects of colour. All of this will help us to construct a better understanding of people’s response to different colour stimulation.

Designers and architects can take advantage of these tools to create, easy-to-name colour palettes to boost memorisation of their products or hard-to-name ones to induce surprise with an underlying goal to make the world a more colourful place.

Main image: Colournamer. Illustration by Valero Doval

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