The World in Color


Erik Zou


Erik is a first-year from Lexington, Massachusetts interested in Economics and Art History. In his free time, he enjoys running, singing, and creating visual art (favorite medium: watercolor!)


Color brightens and adds substance to everything in this world. Building and creating what we see, it transforms our visual experience into one full of depth and discovery. In the natural world, the variety of colors is truly astounding: from emerald blue oceans to pale pink clouds to burnt orange sand dunes, this world’s repertoire of colors amounts to a characterization of the sublime and the beautiful. And yet the beauty of the natural world does not end with individual colors themselves. The combinations of colors found in nature, like the golden yellow paired with matte black found on a bee, further reveal nuances in the way colors cooperate to achieve beauty or excitement for the viewer. With such a breadth of color available from our personal experiences with our surroundings, it is fitting that we attempt to capture and discover purpose in these colors. 

In art and design, humans replicate and harness the color found in this world for specific purposes. While this utilization and recreation of color partly contributes to the grand purpose of beauty, it can have additional underlying objectives. A product or artwork’s aesthetic purpose often intertwines with other intentions—when colors are placed in specific contexts and fusions, they please the viewer and influence both their emotions and perceptions. The examination of such relationships and the development of a guide to using color constitutes color theory. Color theory allows us to understand our experience with color in our daily lives. As both an artist and designer curious about colors and the beauty they encapsulate, I find an exploration of color theory incredibly important for communication with viewers.

Modern Color Theory, Color Schemes

Modern color theory originated from Isaac Newton in 1704. In his book Opticks, Newton established the human’s visual spectrum by studying the interaction between sunlight and prisms, subsequently stumbling upon the rainbow. With these hues, he conceptualized the modern color wheel, which details the relationships with colors. You are likely familiar with the primary colors (red, yellow, blue), secondary colors formed by mixing these primary colors, and tertiary colors, which are produced from even more mixtures of these baseline colors. With this foundation of different hues, one element of color theory involves combining them to create color schemes. These color schemes serve to create visual variety for the viewer and invoke harmony, contrast, and excitement. A couple types of color schemes are analogous and complementary. An analogous color scheme combines colors located beside one another on the color wheel to create harmony between individual hues—an example is using red, orange, and yellow together. A complementary color scheme is quite different. Using colors opposite on the color wheel, like yellow and purple, this color scheme maximizes contrast and trades harmony for the sake of contrast and a strong impression. These two types of schemes are general examples demonstrating the possibilities in color theory when deciding on colors for potential artworks or designs. 

Natural Associations in Color Theory

The case of colors in art and design proves to be multilayered; color theory states that colors are widely understood through their natural associations. This natural association is defined by the association of colors in the natural world. When thinking about colors from this perspective, they become incredibly entrenched in our current and everyday experiences as well as more universal generalizations. For example, when thinking of the color blue, the mind immediately constructs a connection to the sky or the ocean—primal and crucial aspects of the natural world that provide an example of the color and therefore embody it. All other colors face a similar relationship with the world around us, although the more commonly seen primary and secondary colors may be easier to associate than tertiary and more subtle hues. In my view, these associations among colors and our visual reality contribute to the aesthetic portion of color theory. By calling harmony in nature, colors have the potential to please the viewer’s eyes by reminding them of familiar subjects in nature that they find beautiful. 

Color Psychology

Apart from this natural association rooted in the human sensory experience, color theory also implicates the power color has in terms of psychological and cultural association. This derivation of meaning is far more important when it comes to brands in UI/UX design. Color psychology studies the reactions created by different hues, and provides insights into consumer purchasing and emotional responses. These responses are rooted in personal and cultural experience, but for the sake of brevity in this piece of writing, I will solely address colors’ influences in Western cultures. Traditionally, the color blue has been associated with feelings of security, trust, and authority. With these psychological responses in mind, branding becomes much more powerful: using the color blue conveys certain aspects of a brand to potential consumers. In current life, we can recall examples of blue brands in tech companies like DELL and Facebook, and even in the NASA logo. The usage of the color blue is especially appropriate here as it connotes a sense of security and trust vital to the essence of tech and government. Similarly, the psychological responses to the color green suggest a connection to the natural associations of the color with nature and vegetation. The color green often symbolizes health, nature, and can even whet the viewer’s appetite. As such, many brands in the food industry use this color for their logos to evoke freshness and naturalness in their products. Well-known companies using green branding include WHOLE FOODS and Starbucks. These explanations of color psychology for the specific colors of blue and green represent examples of how human emotions and feelings permeate our understanding of colors.

Final Thoughts

As a UI/UX designer, I find these natural and psychological associations of the colors useful when critiquing and formulating designs. When it comes to branding, colors certainly have practical uses that are tried and true in the industry. But to me, this element of practicality perhaps reduces color to a mere means to an end—a formulaic ingredient used to increase sales or appeal to others. While understanding color theory has allowed me to find more practical uses for colors in work and in daily life, it has also led me to lose some of the curiosity, appreciation, and love that drew me to colors in the first place. Beyond reducing colors to their behavioral associations, I hope to view color as a beautiful trait enveloping the whole world to build up our fullest visual experience. Sometimes, it’s more satisfying to take a look up at the sky just for the sake of seeing some blue. 


The Need to Assess Needs

A Case Study of Tropicana

Case Study

Psychology Snacks in Design


The Aesthetic-Usability Effect

Or: Why You Can Get Away With Anything If You're Hot