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We don’t know Jack about Hue

What does the average person know about colour? Not much…

The data is in (well, a lot of it anyway) and the Colour Knowledge Survey concludes that most of us don’t understand basic principles about colour. The data we have so far spans a six-month period, across a broad range of people, from professional designers through to those who don’t profess to have any particular understanding of the subject. The conclusion is that colour literacy is pretty low even among those whose work requires, you would think, a high level of competence.

What is it that people don’t seem to know and why should they know it anyway?

Like so many aspects of our lives the hard part (the critical, scientific stuff) has been largely taken care of. Photographers don’t carry around a light meter (a what?) in their gear-sack anymore; ‘white balancing’, the tricky process of correcting for ambient lighting conditions, is done in-camera (or ‘in-phone’) to such a degree as to make it barely necessary to adjust in post at all. Your computer monitor – once monochrome, then with 8-bit, and now at least 24-bit colour – is so close to ‘true’ that calibration is taken as given in all but the most dedicated studios.

Still, despite all the help we get from our toys, we struggle for words when we look for a harmonious colour scheme for our new brand or when trying to articulate a particular hue: ‘we want a green for our office but not that green’. And likewise, we fail to understand why the blue and black dress we bought in the shop looks white and gold when we get it home (to take a once-topical example). Or even why the paint sample we looked at in the hardware store looks so different on the wall when we roll it on at home.

Art students are usually given a little more knowledge than the rest of us. They tend to learn what happens when you mix colours together from basic building blocks although they are often taught some slightly dated ideas about primary colours which are at odds with our current understanding of perception. Graphic designers are often fed tired ideas about colour associations and colour ‘psychology’: blue is solid and professional, red is dangerous, green is relaxing etc… But there’s not a lot of science in that and even if there is, it’s not quite what we’re interested in here.

For the purpose of this survey, let’s assume that it would help us all if we had a more consistent vocabulary when choosing a colour or colour scheme for a particular creative task. And furthermore, that if we understood more about the nature and behaviour of colour we could anticipate changes in our perception under given conditions, and more confidently predict the results of mixing colour paints, pigments or inks, or changing the temperature or relative strength of lights and projections.

Methods and Madness

Where do you start when trying to determine how much people understand about colour?

Previous studies have tended to assume a pretty colour-smart crowd. David Briggs, for example, an influential thinker and teacher on colour science, put together a survey for those who, like me, study the subject. The outcome was embarrassing for those who, like me, should know better! I took a much more general line with this survey…

I divided the ‘audience’ into those who are completely naïve as to colour knowledge (that is, they profess no particular understanding beyond what they remember from school) and those who have some professional or personal interest in colour specifically, or who pursue a field which relies on visual perception. I then drilled down a little further on the savvy group, dividing those engaged in (relatively) commercial practice such as graphic design or interior design, from those who work more organically as artists, teachers or academics.

For each of these groups I asked questions designed to test their understanding of colour within their domain. In truth, I asked more probing questions of those who work in commercial fields because the end result of my efforts is more likely to be of use to that group than artists or academics. Indeed, I further determined whether the delegate used certain software and the degree to which they profess competence in the use of such tools.

I also asked about relevant qualifications in their creative field, and at what level, and if they had other qualifications in any other field. Their qualifications did not alter the questions presented to them, but this information could, I assumed, have a bearing on their overall understanding. As it happens, it had little bearing at all.

Results

 

The results clearly show that, in general, most people understand little of the nature of colour, regardless of their education or profession. I stress the ‘in general’ part because if you’re a design pro or you take an academic interest in colour then yes it has a bearing on your understanding but even then it’s patchy. I don’t think anyone actually got 100% but there are some reasons for that…

The first seven questions were common to all, and most professionals (or amateurs) got them all right but certainly not all. Then, those who use software like Photoshop received some more questions related to that – Photoshop specifically, but also print media tools like InDesign or equivalent. And furthermore, if the delegate answered ‘yes I print things’ they’d receive some further questions about how to generate a PDF suitable for printing and about the use of the Pantone Matching System.

There are some obvious flaws with this thinking: software competence is a whole other ballgame and it isn’t really fair to equate knowing how to use an application with understanding colour. There are plenty of ‘old-school’ designers who purely ‘design’, or design on paper, rather than get their hands dirty with the keyboard. Still, I think we can reasonably assume that by 2021, theirs is a diminishing group and most people who identify as graphic designers today would tend to use a computer for their work, and of those, most would use Adobe software. Well, that’s really only most people in the European diaspora but I’m just going to ignore that glaring problem of cultural myopathy for now…

And as for the process of printing, I know plenty of competent designers who wouldn’t have a clue how to reliably generate a print-ready PDF. Does that mean they don’t understand colour? Well, no, but that’s probably more indicative of technical indifference – a design/creative cultural malaise that lies somewhere at the heart of the colour knowledge problem (if there is one) so I’m going to let that one go too…

But actually, the carving up of the audience has more problems than that. One of the first questions asked is whether the delegate has a professional or personal interest in visually creative fields – equating the ‘use’, and thus the understanding, of colour with the club of arty types: designers, artists, teachers and related academics. It ain’t necessarily so…

Several delegates raised this in the comments: ‘I’m not creative at all but I know all about colour’ – or something along those lines… I changed the initial question a little in response to this, adding ‘if you research or study colour, say ‘yes’ to the creative question’ but that didn’t really change the subsequent journey through the survey. To do so would be to add another level of complexity to what was becoming a rather convoluted data set anyway.

Of course, any attempt to determine literacy in such a wide, abstract field will be limited by assumptions and undermined by exceptions but in broad strokes at least, the results demonstrate a decided lack of understanding across the board. As to why this is the case and how we can address it, there is more work to be done.