Colour Symbolism

The knowledge and recognition of colours is the most primary learning that presents itself in us since birth. The distinction between colours is a survival skill that enables us to maze through life.

As primal as this knowledge of colours is, so is our association of colours with words. Since childhood, we have learnt and re-learnt how certain colours stand for certain words. Let’s take the basic House-Mountain- River-Sun scenery. We are all acquainted with this scenery and perhaps some of us still draw this when we are asked to draw/paint. This is a primal coding of art and colour-word association. Let’s elucidate the norms of colour-word association in this scenery for better understanding of the concept-

House- the only element that varies and is generally the shade that isn’t used anywhere else in the picture.
Mountain- Brown
Grass- Green
River- Blue
Sun- Yellow
Birds- Black
Tree- Green Leaves and Brown Trunk

Barring a few personal additions and likes such as birds, flowers, car or humans in the picture, for most of us this is how the scenery would look like. Another most crucial point is that although it’s a creative expression and there is no limit on what colour should stand for what, we tend to follow the norms that we see. The tree will never be purple, the mountain will never be pink or the river will never be green, that’s how rigid our cognition is about colours and its meanings.

This classic example of the paint a house scenery demonstrates that the early years learning and association patterns are almost fixed and unchangeable for us. These thought processes convert into a norm in our subconscious over years of learning and re-learning. Every item that we know has a fixed attribute to it- colour, composition, meaning and so on.

Therefore, It is important for us to be cautious and aware of these associations while designing a campaign or zeroing in on a branding. Many campaigns have tried to be bold and challenge these norms but unfortunately they haven’t received any success.

The most prominent example of this skewed association is that of the ‘Waste- Segregation’ Campaign. It is mandated to have two major coloured trash cans at all public places and the visitors are expected to dispose of their garbage as per the classification. Simple ask and can be easily followed, right?

But this is where this ingenious plan collapsed; the campaign designers advocated Green colour for wet trash and Blue colour for dry trash. Millions have not been able to follow this trend. The public started by inverting the coding and when after all this the colour coding wasn’t changed, the public started throwing any trash in any coloured trash can. Thus, the campaign failed.

Why did this happen?

Remember the scenery that we painted in childhood, the one that we just discussed. Well, it’s in our most basic learning that blue is the colour for water and by extension of all its elements. Wetness is a property of water. Hence, if blue trash cans were for wet garbage, the campaign would have been a success.

In conclusion, while developing a brand and finalising the look, one should keep in mind the basic colour- word associations. Start by conducting a sample study on a control group by administering the word-association test designed as per the objectives. It is easier to mould a campaign as per the popular standard than to attempt to cognitively rewire millions!

Authored by Evita Shekhar Sood

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