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Green dress, blue dress? How do you see colour?

Posted on 3rd July 2018
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Following on from our recent article about our collaboration with Coventry University in May to support the development and mentoring of fashion students, we promised to publish this thought-provoking winning article from our competition ‘Colour – from tangible to digital’ by Emma Pepperdine.

Emma’s article was selected due to her consideration of colour in design and for challenging the whole concept of colour!

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Have you ever had that painful debate with a friend about exactly what colour your top really is?  What about that time when you fell in love with a pink skirt only to flip the label over and find that is says peach?  Or even when you change your shirt only to find that your jeans suddenly look a lot more faded?  These sort of things happen to all of us on an everyday basis, but have any of us really stopped to think what this may mean; what colours are we actually seeing?

Colour is a dynamic force that plays a huge role in our everyday experiences and the way we react to these colours affects our daily lives.  It’s said that the colours surrounding us an alter our mood, play with our feelings and change our perspective in many ways; but what if this isn’t the case and in reality it’s the other way around.  What if the colours we see are created by these factors instead?  Our vision is designed to locate objects around us and determine the state that they are in, which then allows our brain to make a simple decision on what to do next.  For example, if someone throws a ball at you, your vision sees it moving, assesses were it is going and then your brain reacts to this.  Our eyes on the other hand, don’t know what colour that ball is.  The cells in our eyes are known as cones and these are split into three types.  These groups of cones each detect different wave length of light but what our brains can’t do, is automatically associate the different wave lengths with a colour.  All we know is that the ball is red, but my red may be someone else’s blue!  As we both think that the colour in front of us is red, we would never know to question the colour we are seeing.

Coventry Workshop

Why would different people see red as a different colour?  This all depends on different factors in your life and ultimately what you have been taught.

If you were to see a lemon and get taught at a young age that it is yellow, then you will always call that colour in front of you yellow, even if to someone else they see a completely different colour to you, you’d both still be calling it a yellow lemon.  Therefore, we grow up thinking we see colours in a normal way, when ultimately is there any normal way to see colour?

Not only could we all be seeing different colours, but there are other factors that play tricks on our brains and change what we see.  For instance, if we were to take a group of red dots and surround them with green dots, you can clearly see the colour red.  However, if we were to change those green dots to white then you can no longer see red, but instead pink is visible.  This is because the shade surrounding the colour can alter the way in which we see something; so is something ever just one colour or is it an undefined amount of colours?  Theories like these could cause major problems when it comes to the design industry, which is why Pantone colour is such an important system.  Rather than creating colours based on our own personal vision, Pantone allows the users to match up and copy colours based on a number rather than what we would name a colour.  This means that we have something to reference against, rather than trying to describe a colour to match it.  Therefore, making the colour that we individually see, more accurate and less personal in the design process.

So we may have figured out a strategic way of working with colour in design terms, but will we ever truly know what colours our own vision is seeing?  Will we ever know if we all are seeing the world in the same colours or whether the above theories are right and each individual has their own personal colour perception?  For now, it looks like the mystery of what colour your top really is, will have to be left unanswered.

 Competition finalists from Coventry University at Murray Uniforms offices.  From left to right: Georgia Lewandowski, Emily Shum,, Mia-Louise Lambert, Emma Pepperdine Competition finalists from Coventry University at Murray Uniforms offices.  From left to right: Georgia Lewandowski, Emily Shum,, Mia-Louise Lambert, Emma Pepperdine