Colour Vs Light… which is more important?

So what is more important, colour or light, light or colour? That was the discussion lighting designer Paul Beale from 18 degrees and I found ourselves having over lunch at his east London studio.

I’m often asked which is more important and this isn’t the first time my response has surprised someone. Even though I specialise in the field of Applied Colour Psychology, keep reading and I’ll explain why.

I remember a designer calling me to say she had been at a trade show listening to an expert panel discussing “what is more important – colour or light?” Each of the panellists agreed that light is. Quite animated she said how she wished I’d been there because I would have seen ‘red’ and staunchly defended colour saying it is more important.  My reply that actually light is more important initially stunned and confused her until I explained why.

I wasn’t privy to the comments from that panel discussion but as I mentioned earlier what most people expect me to say because of my field is that colour is more important.

But the reality is you simply cannot see colour without there being light. You only have to turn the lights off at night and the colours on the objects you could see with the light on have now ‘disappeared’ in the darkness.

For us to have any chance of even experiencing colour we need three things;

  1. a light source
  2. a surface for the light source to bounce off and
  3. the human eye.

But it doesn’t end there… this is where it gets really interesting…

Once we see can the colour (thanks to there being light) it’s at this point that colour becomes the more important of the two.

Because once we see colour, we have an immediate response to it. It’s not just a visual stimulus. Colour does influence how we feel, think and behave.

This is the fascinating bit. When light strikes the human eye the varying wavelengths (which we see as colour) are converted into electrical impulses which pass through the same part of the brain governing our hormones and our endocrine system (the hypothalamus) which governs amongst other things our:

  • sleeping and behavioural patterns
  • nervous system
  • appetite
  • body temperature

What this means is that colour isn’t something you just see. In psychological terms colour delivers an emotion experience. Whether you realise this or not you are always having a connection and responding to the colours in front of you.

When done well, light and colour create the perfect partnership. Together they can evoke positive thoughts, feelings and positive behaviours in any space influencing the experience of the customer in the restaurant or store, productivity in the workplace or wellbeing in the home.

Does this change your perception of how you use light to design or perhaps how you might approach using colour in a space depending on the lighting?

Wishing you a colourful day!

Karen x

If you love colour and want to hang out with a group of colour lovers then come on over to The Colour Collective where colour lovers from all over the world share their passion and colour inspiration. Looking forward to welcoming you in…

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8 Responses to Colour Vs Light… which is more important?

  1. Michael King says:

    A very well presented argument. And all the stronger because I agree :)!

  2. Brilliant article, Karen!
    You outline in a simple way, the 3 conditions we need to “see” a colour.
    This expalins also, why people don’t perceive colours the same way. Eyes, especially men’s eyes, understand colours differently, because colour vision deficiencies are much more common among males than among females. (8% of men suffer from a colour deficiency, while for women the percentage is only 0,4%).
    This is an important factor every designer or architect should take into consideration.
    Along with the huge impact colour has on human psychology and physiology.
    As I’ve already told you, I’m one of the few architects who “shouts” about it!
    Great content, I’m going to share it!

    • admin says:

      Hi Mania,
      So pleased as an architect you love colour. You’re absolutely correct about colour vision deficiencies. It’s absolutely an important factor to take into consideration when using colour.

      Thanks for sharing. Much appreciated.

      Karen 🙂

  3. Derek Grantham says:

    You are so right – you cannot have light without colour. I would add that the ‘colour’ temperature of light must be understood to fully explain this too and if light (photons) excites the eyes does that falling on the skin also have an effect – I think so but cannot explain it. I think at times I feel it. An example, if going out to a place where the colour is an immediate visual stimulation of say happiness then the ambiance is improved. Is that purely driven by the visual response or do other factors play a part like an aura of joy from a whole body experience. Not sure I have found the right wording but as a colour lover you will I am sure get the gist. Worth exploring?? Regards Derek

    • admin says:

      Hi Derek,

      thanks for your comment. Yes colour temperature is also in the mix here. My thoughts around what you’re saying is that we are visually stimulated and then emotionally – we are having an emotive response to everything we are seeing (the colour palette + words + shapes etc).
      Yes, definitely an area of ongoing exploration.

      Karen 🙂

      • Timothy says:

        Hi Karen,
        Could you please explain what you mean about colour temperature? I like the sounds of it, and would like to learn more. Thanks!

        • admin says:

          Hi Timothy,

          In a nutshell, colour temperature is a measure of a light’s colour expressed in kelvin, using the symbol K, a unit of measure for absolute temperature. So colour temperatures over 5000 K are called “cool colors” (bluish white), while lower color temperatures (2700–3000 K) are called “warm colors” (yellowish white through red).

          Hope that helps,
          Karen 🙂

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