Colour Vs Light… which is more important?

Karen Haller 01
Karen Haller

There is one question that I’m often asked and that is “what’s more important, colour or light?” It’s a question I’m asked by my colour & design students, design professionals, from the audience at design shows, even with lighting designers.

And my initial response is often met with surprise given I specialise in the field of Applied Colour Psychology. So keep reading and I’ll explain why…

I remember a few years back 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.

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.

Colour makes us feel something

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?

I’d love to know which you feel is more important. Pop your comments in the box below.

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.

First published 8th August 2017.

Updated with extracts from The Little Book of Colour, How to Use the Psychology of Colour to Transform Your Life.

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10 Comments

  1. Derek Grantham on August 9, 2017 at 12:30 am

    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 on September 5, 2017 at 3:30 pm

      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 on September 20, 2017 at 12:34 am

        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 on September 23, 2017 at 4:28 pm

          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 🙂

  2. Mania Mavridou on August 9, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    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 on September 5, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      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. Michael King on August 10, 2017 at 8:55 pm

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

    • admin on September 5, 2017 at 3:34 pm

      Hi Michael,

      Thank you for your feedback.

      Kind regards,
      Karen

  4. Veronica Kingsley on August 31, 2021 at 4:00 pm

    This is why your book “The Little Book of Colour” is a must read! Also worth watching Physicist Helen Czerski – Colour the Spectrum of science

    • Karen Haller on September 1, 2021 at 1:14 pm

      Thank you Veronica, that’s very kind of you x
      I agree, Physicist Helen Czerski has lots of great videos on the science of colour.

      Karenx

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