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The Truth About Color and Language: How Our Words Shape the Way We See

If you ever joined in the great internet debate of the white/gold vs black/blue dress, you might have found yourself in disbelief that anybody could see the picture differently than you. After all, seeing is believing. If we can’t trust our own eyes, what can we trust? 

But it turns out that the way we see color is in fact different than the way other people see it. And while there’s no scientific explanation yet for why that particular photograph had the world divided, we do know that perception of color varies, not just in viral internet photos, but across the world. 

In fact, scientists are beginning to believe that the way our culture teaches language actually shapes the way we perceive it. Read on to find out more about the way we see color and why that matters from a design standpoint. 

What’s In a Name?

Even though we don’t realize it, we can see over seven million different colors. Of course, no culture teaches that many different color words! 

Instead, languages usually assign a set of basic color words, and we group other colors into those categories. In the United States, we’re typically taught 11 basic colors, but we assign words for a much wider variety of colors (from ocher to chartreuse to magenta). 

But the way we classify colors isn’t the same across the world. Some cultures identify up to twice as many “basic colors” as we do, while others don’t even have a word for color! But it’s easy to assume that even if color words vary we still see the same thing. After all, if you call the sky blue or azul or blue, it’s still the same color. Or is it more complicated than that?

Is Color Universal?

Scientists have long been fascinated with color across cultures. They fall into two camps when it comes to color—universalists and relativists. Universalists believe that color is seen the same way regardless of culture or language. They also believe that there is a set order to how most children learn color, starting with the primary colors.

Relativists question those theories. They believe that the words we assign to the colors actually affect the way we see them. At first, that idea might sound off the wall. But in recent years studies have shown that our color vocabulary does in fact change our color perception. 

Color Is Learned, Not Innate

A study released in 2004 examined this idea more closely. Dr. Debi Roberson of the University of Essex led the study that compared native English speaking children to those of the Himba tribe in Namibia. 

In the Himba language, there are only five basic color words, and they’re very different than the color concepts in English. For example, the colors we identify as red, orange, and pink are grouped together under one word in Himba. Most blues and greens fall under one term, while other shades of green fall under another. 

The researchers asked both groups of children to identify objects by color and then to find objects of the same color. 

They found that the words the children learned to identify their colors actually changed whether they could distinguish between them. Both sets of children could identify differences in colors better as they learned more color words. They also found that there was no universal pattern in the order the children learned their colors.

The key takeaway from that study was that color might not be as universal as we once believed. Color is likely learned and not innate, and the way we learn it changes the way we see it.

Light, Dark, or Two Different Colors? 

Another study reinforced this idea using Russian and English native speakers. The Russian language has more basic color words than English, including two separate terms for darker and lighter shades of blue. 

In this study, participants were shown a shade of dark blue, then shown two pictures and asked which matched the first. The Russian speakers could pick the match faster if the incorrect option was a light blue than if it was a different shade of dark blue. 

The English speakers didn’t show that same speed advantage. They could only choose faster if it was a different perceived color (a blue option and a green option) than if it was two blues, even if the shades were widely varied. 

The study suggests that the way we assign color terms and classifications changes our perception of the colors. If the English language had two separate words for dark and light blue, we would gain a new advantage in this particular test. The way we perceive the color blue would be entirely different.

How This Affects Design


So it turns out that color isn’t universal after all. Just because you call something blue…doesn’t mean someone else does. You might not even see it the same way at all!

That’s why it’s crucial to understand your target audience when choosing the colors of your logo and packaging. It’s important to consider the cultural implications behind color and make sure that your designs resonate with the audience you’re trying to reach. 

Color is one of the most important elements of design. It can change the way people see you, the feeling they get from your product, and whether or not they trust you as a company. It can make all the difference when it comes to your brand. 

At Creme De Mint, we know the value of color. We’re fascinated by the psychology and science behind color and the way it relates to your brand and consumers, and we use that knowledge to help create brands people crave. Contact us, if you need guidance from a strategic branding agency. We’re here to help!