Why Are Colors Personal?

Why Are Colors Personal?

It’s a colorful world out there. But as humans, sometimes it’s easy to forget what this can mean for us. In honor of our PointCard™ Neon launch, we’re diving into what it means for color to be personal.

You don’t know someone well, so you ask them for their favorite color. The answer surprises you — or it doesn’t. Why or why not? 

Learning that someone’s favorite color is green tells you something about that person. If it didn’t, why would you ask? Why would any of us ask? 

A superficial question on the surface, what’s your favorite color may actually be one of the most profound. Somewhere along the way, it took on that unmistakable sheen of superficiality — almost like we could ask it and not actually care to hear the response. When they say green, you move onto the next thing almost immediately: cool, so what did you study in college?

The truth is: our favorite colors do communicate something personal. It’s only rare that anyone takes the time to examine why. 

Why do we see color? Isaac Newton observed that color isn’t inherent in objects, meaning that green is not embedded in grass — but that a blade of grass’ surface reflects the wavelengths of light we see as green, absorbing all the rest. Our eye processes the reflected color. 

Newton’s color theory is strictly physiological and led to breakthroughs in chemistry, physics, optics, and more. His prism experiments and assessment of the spectrum of light are widely recognized as the foundation for a robust understanding of how humans engage with and perceive color. 

Slightly lesser-known, however, is the work of poet, philosopher, artist, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which challenged some of the nuances of Newton’s hypotheses. Goethe was less interested in the physiology of color perception, and more in color’s psychological effects. He objected to the Newtonian suggestion that color could be reduced to a function of light rays, instead arguing that the sensations of color reaching our brain — previously hypothesized as the pure result of light striking objects and entering our eyes — are also shaped by our unique and subjective color-perceptions. Goethe’s Theory of Colors (1810) also explores the impact of different colors on mood and emotion, arriving at conclusions based almost purely on Goethe’s own intuition. Though his theories are not based in the scientific method, Goethe’s work on color aims to breach that gap between empiricism and romanticism, serving as an example of how to assess and arbitrate the simultaneously subjective and objective human experience of color. 

Today, we may believe we know as much as there is to know about color, but in reality, there remains plenty of room for exploration.

Much of this exploration, however, cannot be proven or studied using traditional scientific methodology, which is why Goethe’s work remains important today despite its subjectivity. After all, when we engage with color, most of us aren’t thinking about the spectrum of light, its striking an object, or the mechanics of the human eye. Instead, we’re intimately bound to the way color makes us feel — just as Goethe’s iconoclastic work emphasized. 

Technically speaking, we do recognize color as a scientific phenomenon. But despite this knowledge, we do not view our experiences with color as purely scientific. In fact, on the day-to-day level, the experience and emotional effects of color are first and foremost personal. Humans have always interacted with color in the context of larger cultural symbology, but today, we interact more and more with color on our own terms, creating conversations around color in ways unfathomable to our ancestors, and harnessing the power of color-based personalization in ways that probably would have felt borderline regal hundreds of years ago. In some ways, it’s a privilege to be able to indulge in color the way we do today, though many of us do so without thinking about it. If we took the time, what would we discover about ourselves and the people around us through this lens of color? Therein lies endless potential for discovery.

In fact, this is an entire level of self-awareness available to every person on earth that we usually bypass — a richly patterned glimpse into the human soul, all based on the vivid and personal nuances of color. 

So, what is your favorite color? Maybe you’ve had the same response since elementary school. Or maybe, as an adult, you’re more drawn to neutrals. Most children do not claim to love beige. But you love beige — various shades of champagne. And you don’t find it boring at all. It’s actually the perfect reflection of how you feel during the present month — maybe even the present year; the present decade; the present moment. 

And what does this say about you now? Or about where you’ve been and where you’re headed? 

No one needs to answer these questions off the top of their head, nor would anyone necessarily be able to. In a given moment, it’s enough to acknowledge an attraction to beige and to sit with it. But with continued reflection, it becomes clearer that an attraction to beige says something, even if that something isn’t easily articulated. If anything, it’s most likely a feeling, and the experience of seeing or wearing or decorating with beige is a signifier of this feeling. This feeling, to you, is composed of layers upon layers of varied signification: the flan you ate growing up; days at the beach; the fact that everyone who wore beige in the 90s felt so inexplicably sophisticated; the fact that people around you said wearing beige was sophisticated; the fact that beige is such a departure from how you used to be. The list could go on, but only you can know how beige feels to you from the inside. That said, other people will still see beige — perceived in conjunction with all of their own subjective associations — projected onto you. When you wear it; when you say it’s one of your favorite colors — they’ll take this information and begin to see beige differently, or to see you differently based on your attraction to beige. Realistically, the way someone perceives beige could very well change forever, simply based on their having known — or not known — you at one particular point in time.  

When we get into some of the finer points behind why we’re attracted to certain colors, it seems a systematic analysis of a single life’s intimate details could potentially determine — more or less “scientifically” — what colors a person is likely to be drawn to. Similarly, these details could hint at which colors a person is likely to enjoy less. Questions of synesthesia could also play a role in this form of individual assessment — when you hear a word, what color do you see? What colors do you associate with stereotypically “negative” words, or with people, periods of time, or places? These associations — depending on your experiences with said people, periods of time, or places — have immense potential to influence color preferences.

And of course, beyond the nostalgic and anecdotal associations that influence our personal color preferences, there is wider color symbolism that influences these anecdotal and nostalgic associations.

Historically, widely accepted color symbolism has varied according to culture, time period, and available technology — stark cross-cultural differences exist between associations with the color red, for example, and the same could be argued for every stripe of the rainbow. Past evolution in color symbolism suggests continued evolution in the future, with technology’s impacts likely exercising outsize influence moving forward. Even today, in any specific cultural context, color symbolism is never one-dimensional, and in an era of increased globalization, these symbolic lines are blurrier than ever before. 

Going further, the decline in the immediacy of community — at least in terms of how “community” has been traditionally defined and understood — means that preexisting notions of color are now constantly intersecting across previously demarcated “cultures” and worldviews. In our current decade, we interact less and less with people in physically bound, community-oriented spaces. The reasons for this are manifold: the continued decline of organized religion; the expansion of remote work; the isolation resulting from internet usage, video games, and constant access to streaming services, etc. Many have suggested that an innate longing for community has led to increased political polarization across the world, and the COVID-19 pandemic only took this disintegration of the physical, “IRL” community to new heights. 

Despite the internet’s potentially isolating effects, the pandemic also served to underscore that today, many of the world’s strongest communities are born and maintained online.

In many cases, community members do not necessarily live near each other, nor do they have the chance to regularly meet in person (if ever). But just like any more “traditional” community, these virtual “communities” — formed through the likes of Reddit threads, YouTube comment sections, and fan fiction forums — develop their own unique systems of color symbolism and significance. A few examples in recent memory include the tumblr-native Vaporwave color palette (magenta, robin egg’s blue, any shade remotely associated with “Windows 95”); the VSCO girl trend of the late 2010s (extra emphasis on light yellow and puka shells); and the notorious “Brony” community. All of these communities wade in a tie-dye sea of pastels, and all have different relationships to the American Easter holiday color palette, thereby influencing the associations others have with this same palette. 

As online communities ebb and flow in influence, so do their unique systems of color symbolism. In conjunction with these currents, online community members walk the streets alongside people who belong to their geographic or cultural community, but who do not share the same color associations as their online communities. And the color associations of an online community — just like the color associations of a geographic or cultural community — evolve over time, creating yet another layer of ever-changing, symbolic variation.

In this sense, the internet adds another dimension to color association — it takes color symbolism from the personal and widespread cultural to the infinite virtual landscape, culminating in even more layers of signification — all of which still stem from a single shade. 

Also an internet color phenomenon, 2015’s “is this dress black and blue or gold and white” craze taught us that color perception is variable, and that much of this perception depends on context. Artists are intimately aware of this, and often play off the possibility of differing perceptions in their work. 

Josef Albers’ seminal text on color, Interaction of Color (1963), outlines a set of principles for perceiving color in different ways. A valuable resource based on years of experience teaching at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale University, Interaction of Color consists of about 200 images (most reproductions of student work) illustrating 16 different exercises that Albers put together over the course of his teaching career. 

Within Interaction of Color, Albers famously suggests that the appearance of color can be altered by the colors around it; that in order to use color effectively, “it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.”

To Albers, color was the most malleable or “relative” art medium because “actual” color can only be understood according to its context, as opposed to “factual” color, which refers to the experience of a color in isolation. The book’s chapter “A Color Has Many Faces,” explores a variety of ways in which one color can be made to look like two. 

In some ways, Albers’ color experiments mirror the complexities of our own mental perceptions of color: In our heads, pink next to green conjures different associations than pink next to red. Going further, the way colors interact with each other in Albers’ experiments mirrors how our uniquely individual associations with color interact with communal and universal associations. These nuanced interactions combine to substantiate our personal relationships with colors. 

We may ask ourselves: Does the truth of color lie in its pure, scientific objectivity and isolation? Or does the truth of color lie in its context — in how it appears uniquely to us?

The answer probably lies somewhere between these two alternatives, but personal — or subjective — color associations carry more obvious weight on a day-to-day basis. It is this context-reliant meaning that influences our routine color choices the most — what we wear, how we present ourselves on social media, what we choose for a toothbrush. And by extension, these color choices influence our actions, environments, and interactions. 

The beauty in Albers’ work is that it highlights this universal problematic of subjective versus objective “truth” through visual means — allowing us to visualize (literally) the effects of context and isolation on perception and meaning. That said, Albers’ statement that “color deceives continually” prevents us from forming any sure conclusion around the “truth” of color. Whether existing in a specific context or in pure isolation, color is in a constant state of “deception” based on just how much it can change according to context and individual perception.  

Though many color manuals have been written since the publication of Interaction of Color, Albers’ text remains highly regarded and widely used. If viewed technically, Albers’ work is less a book on color theory as it is an invitation for artists and designers to develop their own feel for color through experimentation. To know color is to work with its shape-shifting layers, and this is the demanding task of the creative. To Albers, experience is the greatest teacher, and when it comes to color, students should be encouraged to make their own discoveries rather than rely on predetermined rules of order and harmony to shape their understanding.

In this way, creatives of all sorts can use color experimentation to fulfill their own creative purposes, to find their own color voices, and to innovate using the world’s most powerful visual system. In this realm of “deception” based on context, there is no end. And to the curious, this should feel infinitely exciting.

Albers-type color experimentation doesn’t have to happen with paint and paper. Similar creative processes and discoveries can take place through simple observation, and then, of course: through choice. You won’t know that you enjoy wearing a certain color until you wear it. Only then will you have a grasp on how this color interacts with your personality and accentuates — or clashes with! — your aura. Perhaps your discoveries are varied: sweatshirts should be gray, sheets should be blue, fingernails are best when periwinkle. There are constituent elements to color preferences as a whole. And these elements combine to create something larger than the colors themselves. 

It’s never too late to change your favorite color, to decide you actually have one — or a few — after years of saying you’re ambivalent. Maybe in-life and in-studio color experimentation will lead you to new conclusions, or at least cause you to reconsider your usual answer. What’s your favorite color? is a question to ask yourself before you ask the same of others, and concerted reflection can lead to insightful answers.

Determining your “favorite” colors is an invitation to learn more about yourself and the origins of your preferences. At the very least, it’s motivation to be more conscientious in your color choices. 

One way to experiment with color is to immerse yourself in it. This immersion is pure with the help of Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. So pure, in fact, that it feels like a psychedelic baptism. 

You can dive right in at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, whose permanent collection features Cruz-Diez’s “Cromosaturación” (1965/2012). A preeminent artist of the postwar era, Cruz-Diez created works that encapsulated preeminence, and this particular installation is no exception. You’ll be directed to put on precautionary footwear coverings, then to enter connecting chambers of hypnotic color. Pink, blue, green — plus transitional shades where the lights intersect. \

Cruz-Diez, who worked in Paris from 1960 until his passing in 2019, challenged his viewers to appreciate color as “a reality which acts on the human being with the same intensity as cold, heat, sound, and so on.” Cruz-Diez’s work emphasizes the universal nature of color, not in the sense that color has supposed universal meaning, but in the sense that everyone, regardless of age, class, or culture, can interact with and participate in the sensuous experience of color. And that’s what you feel as you walk through these chambers, especially because inside them, you are repeatedly subject to your own reflection.

In fact, you see yourself on three separate occasions, bathed in the consuming expanse of a single, saturated hue — the other colors not too far away: your next experience, literally, just around the corner.

In a moment, you’re able to observe how natural it feels to have a particular color cast onto every part of your body. Suddenly, the color becomes personal in a visceral way, and you have — in this moment — the opportunity to assess whether or not the color feels truly personal to you. Is this sensorial experience an expression, so to speak, of your insides? The green certainly not — nor the blue. But that liminal space between neon blue and neon pink is an unequivocal and instinctive yes. And inside this museum — within the confines of this funny chamber — you’re given the opportunity to learn and experience this for the very first time. In an instant, you’re forced to face not the music but the color. 

Maybe it takes an experience like this to solidify something you already know: Colors are personal.

Whether they’re momentarily projected onto your face or embedded in your childhood psyche — you don’t need to delve into the theory to understand why. But you do need to delve beyond the superficial associations we’ve developed around that awkward first-date question: what’s your favorite color? 

You may discover that someone’s favorite color is blue, but you won’t really know how to interpret this information until you get to know them better. When they say blue, what do they mean? When they say they hate tan, do they mean they hate the color of raw linen? Or do they mean they hate tan in that stereotypical 80s presentation: mixed with hunter green and too-pink maroon? The words we use to describe color, though specific on Pantone and paint swatches, are mostly imprecise in their inherent subjectivity. But this, again, doesn’t have to be nauseating. If anything, it’s exciting. Through color, you can learn more about yourself. And then, you can also learn more about the people around you. 

Mere existence — the fact of living life — is a nonstop experiment with the colors that vivify our surroundings. Of course, how we engage consciously with this experiment is less obvious, but at the end of the day, that's what makes it so exciting.

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