Shades of White — The emotional characteristics of White.

It’s been widely accepted since the 1950’s that colours have the potential to elicit diverse emotional responses. This knowledge has been put to great use by marketers and designers wishing to give an informed psychological nudge towards specific behaviours. Studies on the emotional responses of white have been thin on the ground.

Maybe this isn’t surprising, is white even a colour? My old art teacher would argue white is the absence of colour and doesn’t exist in nature. Base white and black were outlawed in fine art and only to be used to create tints and shades.

Regardless of its status in nature, white is ubiquitous in modern design and the man-made world. The most popular colour of car in both the UK and the US . The de facto colour of household appliances. The colour of stationary and the web—the white canvas on which we set type and build interfaces. It’s no accident that negative space is referred to as white rather than red.

White has properties that differentiate it from other colours. Studies show it to be a colour that conjures the illusion of cleanliness, purity and quality. Also, given two slightly different shades of white, humans can more easily differentiate them than two shades of red equally distanced. The whiter colours are the more easily we can tell them apart.

Researchers at the Depart of Industrial Design, KAIST, have undertaken a study to further the understanding of the emotional impact of white. Their goal to find if different shades of white trigger different emotional responses, just as different hues on the colour wheel have been found to do in the past. They aimed to quantify it, empowering designers with the tools needed to select a shade of white that fits the emotional characteristic they wish to communicate.

Building a emotional characteristic lexicon

In the first experiment the researchers set out to validate previous studies while constructing a list of adjectives to describe the colours emotional characteristics.

Thirteen colours were chosen along with emotional adjectives including ‘weak’, ‘modern’ and ‘sophisticated’. Participants were asked to rate from 1 to 7 how well they thought the adjective fitted the colour.

Significant differences were found and from the results the researchers honed the adjectives into four main groups or factors; Flamboyant, Elegant, Clear and Soft.

Red and Yellow tended towards flamboyant whereas, neutral colours like grey, white and black were more elegant. White in particular was found to be the most elegant.

Blue was seen as the ‘clearest’ colour closely followed by white, which was also the ‘softest’ of colours.

It is clear that white has the potential to fit more than one emotional factor.

Investigating the emotional characteristics of shades of white

Armed with the new lexicon for describing colours, the researches looked to verify whether different shades of white had the same capacity for causing varying emotional responses.

25 shades of white were chosen in selection of different hues (green, blue, red, yellow) and saturations (high, medium and low).

The participants were asked to rate the colours according to the four emotional factors.

The results were inline with the previous experiment, with those warmer shades of white; tints of red, yellow red and red blue being the most flamboyant.

White with a red blue shade was seen as the most elegant. In the clear factor saturation was found to play more of a role than hue. Saturated white with blue was the most clear followed by green blue and green with high saturation.

White with a yellow shade was seen as the softest.

What does it mean for designers?

The study was aimed at industrial designers, choosing materials, colours and finishes. But at a high level the information allows designers in any discipline to make an informed choice on the shade of white to use. What follows is conjecture, I’m in no way an expert in interpreting scientific studies. By all means shout me down if I happen to misrepresent the results.

I see the research as more useful for those in print and branding, simply because specific colours can be accurately replicated in the print medium. Good news for traditional Graphic Designers.

In the world of digital design things aren’t so clean cut. Colour disparity across screens being a huge blocker. On the web we don’t have the luxury of knowing how accurately our colours will be displayed. Each screen will take the base colour of white and tint it slightly in its own way.

Screen quality on top of the user’s saturation, contrast and brightness settings may be enough to take what was intended to be a ‘flamboyant’ shade of white and cast towards the ‘elegant’ side of the spectrum. Potentially losing the emotional characteristic the designer was trying to cultivate and replacing it with a conflicting one.

This introduces an interesting issue. This casting will happen anytime white appears on screen, thus each screen has the potential to favour a particular emotional response. With white being widely used across the web, could this have a long term impact on a user’s emotional state?

It would be useful to know, to what extent these emotional responses caused by colour affect our behaviour. Is it enough to sway decisions or is the effect negligible and easily combated by other factors?

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