Night owl or lark?

“We all see the same colour but just describe it differently don’t we?”

How we use colour as a graphic tool is probably the most interesting, complex and powerful device in a designer’s toolbox. It is interesting to note, therefore, that how we actually perceive colour almost certainly varies between individuals at quite an alarming extent.

One of my favourite colours in the Pantone palette is PMS 320. It is cool and sophisticated and I find it suitable for a wide variety of applications where a professional feel with a degree of impact is required. I always describe it as a green yet, almost all of the clients I discuss the colour with describe as a teal or blue. I always put this down in the past as to the sensitivity of perception on the borderline between blues and greens and the probable variation of the client’s uncalibrated computer screens. Call it what you will we all see the same colour but just describe it differently don’t we? Surely?

Imagine my surprise when I read about the recent research from Pascal Wallisch, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University, which impacted like a bombshell in the world of colour vision science, based on the following events.

On a late winter’s afternoon in 2015 Cecilia Bleasdale posted on social media a picture of a dress she was thinking of wearing to a function. So far very straightforward. Until her friend’s responses started coming in. Some people saw the dress as the blue and black of the actual dress as seen in the photograph but, strangely, some people looking at the same image saw it as gold and white.

“For years the colour vision community was a very sleepy, stale, unexciting field,” said Professor Wallisch. “We thought we had figured it out, that there were subtle differences (in colour perception) but, by and large, people all saw the world the same.” The frock event though was “like if geographers had discovered a new continent.” They discovered there was no rational explanation as to why people saw the dress so differently.

Professor Wallisch conducted a survey of 13,000 people to determine what factors would cause such a wide discrepancy in the perception of the colours by certain individuals. His findings found that the ambiguity of the lighting on the late winter afternoon leaving the frock looking equally balanced between daylight, shadow or artificial light caused uncertainties which was left to the brain to fill. Also involved was whether the viewer was an early bird or night owl. “If the brain faces uncertainty, in general it doesn’t say ‘I don’t know’, it says ‘I’ll fill in the uncertainty with assumptions’. The bottom line is people made different assumptions.”

In the survey of those who thought the dress was backlit and in shadow, 80% saw it as white and gold. “Why? Because shadows are blue, and so your brain subtracts blue light from the image.” That left the dress looking yellow. Similarly the brain makes a similar adjustment to the bluish light of natural daylight leaving the others who assumed the photo was taken outside more likely to see the dress as white and gold.

But an even bigger question is why did some think the light was artificial whilst others thought it natural? Professor Wallisch believes that the critical factor was the light that people were more used to in their waking hours which led him on to their sleeping habits.

“There are owls like me who get up very late, who get less exposure to daylight. There are larks who see less artificial light.” This, he believes, swayed people’s assumptions. “Everything else being equal, on average I’d predict larks to see it as gold, owls as blue.”

Finding out about the complexities of colour and how our brain sees it certainly explains the difference between how I see PMS 320 and the majority of others. According to Professor Wallisch I am a lark but most of my clients must be night owls. Either way it shows how we must understand that we do not all see colour the same way and must give each other a little leeway and understanding in the confusing and complex science of colour technology.

This article was written by Luke Dibbens at Mustard Design – please feel free to get in contact

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