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The Mystery of Color Perception, and the Variables at Work


By Barbara Jacobs

What’s important when the subject is the science and perception of color?

I suppose that could be the working title for every post I do.

But, let's say we agree that we recognize that color perception is important. So, what’s next? How do we take it to the next level? There’s the right “color,” and then there’s “Everything Right About the Color.” Color experience is so omnipresent that I was inspired to share this example from a medium not directly related to architectural color.

The Swedish design firm Happy F&B has really got it right, in a subtle yet effective way.


Little changes count

In this case, for example, the subtle changes in the green color, the font style, the shape… are the seemingly little changes that make the difference.

The same principles can also apply to using color in architecture and interiors. It’s a broader view on what makes color selections important, and why many factors need to be considered. 

Lighting is the one that's most often mentioned as being important. After all, what is “color” if not reflected light? Metamerism—the difference in color appearance caused by the color temperature of various light sources—is one of the most important, intriguing (and, frankly, sometimes downright annoying) phenomena that we encounter in selecting and recommending colors for any project.

In some cases it’s useful to use a light box, such as this one from Pantone that shows two light sources at the same time for the purpose of immediate color comparison.


As with the logo re-design above, in architectural color it can be the little things that become the most important things. And getting to these can mean asking a lot of questions. Among them might be:

  • What's the purpose of the shape of the area considered for a color? Is it intended to be read as a collection of flat surfaces, or as a mass or volume
  • What about the position of the surface in the space? Is it above you, below, at the side, or behind other shapes? These all apply whether it's indoors or outside.


Carlo Scarpa, pub. Taschen

Using a distinctive color and texture amid other similarly colored surfaces creates a focal point. In this case, it also defines the volume of the column, a function beyond that of what we typically call “accent wall.”

We humans actually do respond both physically and emotionally to these qualities even if it’s not something we consciously think about. And, while these might seem like extraneous details—not romantic, fashionable, glamorous or “sexy”—they are exactly the kinds of considerations that can determine the success of a color palette and therefore of an interior, a building, or a product.

Find out more about lighting design here.


Barbara Jacobs

Can we talk?...about color, that is. That’s our objective with this ongoing discussion—a Color Exchange, if you will—in this Durability + Design blog. Whether we know it or not, color affects all of us, in many ways. So let’s engage in this exchange and explore this mysterious and exciting subject of color, its effects, and its applications.



Tagged categories: Color; Color + Design; Barbara Jacobs Color and Design; Color selection

Comment from Ayn Riggs, (8/26/2011, 11:40 AM)

Nice article Barbara.

Comment from julie boney, (9/7/2011, 8:44 AM)

I'm always fascinated by the role light plays with color - great post Barbara!

Comment from Roxane McCosh, (9/28/2011, 7:08 PM)

Lighting and paint in reflected light are so crucial to the overall feel of a room. One wall using the same color may look completely different than another where light is more or less present. We've even had to put paint on several walls in front of a client to prove that the colors are the same. Thanks for the article.

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