I’m writing about the color blue this week, and not just because that’s how Shea and I are feeling after our respective teams were dismissed from the baseball playoffs this weekend. Welcome to the second installment of “Get to Know a Color!”
If you go into the blue out of the blue, you are going somewhere unknown unexpectedly. If you take the blue ribbon while singing the Blues, you are the best there is at making sad music. If you use blue language to describe blue laws, you are angry about government trying to legislate morality.
While many of the phrases that involve the word blue denote sadness, there is a generally positive association with the color. In fact, it is cited in many places as the most common favorite color (though I’ve not seen a formal study that confirms this).
The color blue is seen in many cultures to represent calm—like a blue sky or smooth waters. (Taking tranquility to the extreme, blue can also represent depression or sadness.) An article on color psychology by Kendra Cherry indicates that blue is used to decorate bedrooms because of its calming influence, and that research shows that people work more efficiently in rooms decorated in blue. (These two facts seem incongruous to me, but the general idea seems to be that the calming influence of a blue room helps people both sleep and concentrate, presumably not at the same time.)
In terms of the physics of how we see color, only purple exists on a lower frequency of wavelengths visible to the human eye.
As with any color, blue is seen differently in different cultures. In Iran, blue is the color of mourning. An article on About.com titled A Vast Ocean of Blue by Blythe Langley indicates that blue represents spirituality or Heaven in Eastern cultures, while in the West it is associated more with the corporate world. Because in Western cultures blue has come to represent stability and importance, navy blue is the de facto choice for business suits. (There is still no explanation for Shea’s affinity for his light blue Seersucker suit.)
Blue is an appetite suppressant, a fact often attributed to the lack of naturally occurring blue food (even blueberries are more purple than blue). Clearly, then, the traditional navy blue power suit is the result of important people not wanting to be eaten.
In design, the cool color blue is often used with its warm complement, orange, to create a vibrant, powerful palette. Because of the bold statement it makes, the blue-orange palette is common on sports uniforms (see Boise State, the University of Virginia, the Denver Broncos, the New York Mets, and countless others). Blue is also frequently paired with green to create a soothing, analogous palette that connotes a feeling of nature.
Blue is common in logo design. A blog post by Jennifer Moline on the site Inspiredology highlights “15 Blue Logos that Evoke Precision” (though the post leaves out what to me is the most obvious precise blue logo, Paul Rand’s iconic IBM).
And finally, as I researched this post, I kept stumbling on this odd tidbit: Research shows that weight lifters perform better in rooms that are painted blue. For interpreters, this is can be an important fact if you have identified your target audience as Hans and Franz. (A 1980s Saturday Night Live reference is timely and hip, right?)
I associate the color blue with an all-too-brief visit my wife and I made last year to the Greek island of Santorini (pictured at the top of this post). Our time there was spent under clear skies and overlooking the sparkling Aegean Sea. Under the blazing sun, buildings like the iconic church pictured here were blue and white, almost without exception. I have a distinct recollection of being surrounded by blue, and it was as relaxing a time as I can remember (though that’s in part because the children were home with their grandparents).
Making color choices in design is difficult because every individual brings his or her own experiences and preconceptions to the table, but with a basic understanding of how color is generally perceived within the culture for whom your work is intended, designers and interpreters can make meaningful decisions.