Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Meaning Of Color

By James Curcio

Johan Ess, a co-conspirator and collaborator on HoodooEngine (among other things), was sharing the album design mockups for another project he's working on, Bradley The Buyer. The front cover was looking good, I thought, but uses a monochromatic scheme and I suggested tossing in a splash of color.

Those who know my visual aesthetic know I'm all about the vivid colors.

I suggested red or possibly yellow. They had tried red, Johan explained, but thought it looked too "mafia."

Mafia? Is that a "thing"? This got me thinking again about something I wrote about in The Immanence of Myth. That is, the associations that we have with certain colors, sounds, smells, etc. As a professional designer, I encounter this most frequently in the visual realm.

Let me include a little from The Immanence of Myth, and then explore this more:
It is through choosing to accept predetermined meanings that we opt into cultures. Of course, much of this occurs as we're growing, before we realize we have any choice in the matter. As we grow into adulthood, the onus of choosing an unpopular path is the fear of being an outsider. The crisis period for this is in adolescence, when issues of identity and social hierarchy seem to reach a fever pitch.64 Entire sub-cultures spring out of this conflict — rock, punk, goth, etc. all resulted from the clash of “insider” and “outsider” culture, and our own warring interests as the mold of identity begins to set. Of course, when any of these sub-cultures reaches a certain size or popularity it begins to flip-flop, exhibiting more behaviors and concerns that go along with insider, or popular culture. The fashion overtakes the ideology.
The cogency of a culture arises, in part, through an agreement upon certain terms. If a group all choose to give X meaning to object Y, they are then entering the same ideological domain together, at least in regard to that object or practice. Let's say one night you wake up in your bed, and look under your bed. There, shuffling amongst the dust bunnies, is a lobster. Would you even consider the option of eating it? We had to be instructed of the possibility of this course of action by the surrounding culture. Of course, you may now think that sea cockroaches are disgusting, or they might be your favorite food.

Some such domains are more ubiquitous than others, possibly as a result of our biological commonality, so there are some “truth pacts” which are in certain places and times more likely to take hold and last. One outcropping of this implicit cogency is language. It should be fairly obvious that the meaning of language is derived, to one extent or another, through context. A “soldier” could be a man, or an ant, or it could be a way that one goes about something. “Myth” can be any number of things, as we are discovering, and only a keen ear can glean the subtleties of use in what is essentially an ongoing symphony. G# may be played twenty times in a musical composition. In terms of its frequency, it remains the same pitch, but does it always have the same meaning? If so, Western music only has twelve words. We all know this is untrue. Notes in music work more like letters, which can be permutated, and meaning shifts along with it. Their meaning can be transmuted through juxtaposition with notes that come later, or those that are played at the same time, at the rate they are played, the velocity or emphasis of the note, and so on. The underlying system allows for a homogeneity of meaning even if there are seemingly infinite possibilities for variation. This is a fairly obvious point about music theory. I ask that you consider it instead as a statement about all symbolic systems.
We might also recognize that there is another heterogeneous layer, a personal one, hidden under the supposedly homogeneous meaning of a statement.65 Imagine that your son went off to war and died. Would you experience the same feeling tone from the word “soldier” as an enthusiastic new recruit? That's a personal layer. There are cultural ones as well. Take something so simple and everyday as the color yellow. There is the English association of cowardice. Yet Buddhist monk's robes are a yellow-orange because to them it is the color of death. Even death itself has a different connotation for a Chinese Buddhist than a Catholic in London.
We may also hold a personal association with a color. As a result of a past experience, it may bring about deep joy, or despair. It may produce no reaction what-so-ever. Someone may say something offhandedly to you, they meant it as a joke, but you suddenly feel tears welling to your eyes, because it reminded you of an old dead friend. These associations often operate on multiple levels, and different reactions are triggered in different circumstances. Colors can even, oddly, be gendered, as we clearly see in the American insistence that the color pink is, somehow, a female color.
This is a straightforward enough idea in reference to linguistics and semiotics, but what often gets ignored is the effect this contextual and transient meaning can have on our state of mind, and how it can be transmitted, transmuted; how it, in the final summation, entirely mutable.

Image by Gabriel Wick
It never ceases to amaze me what people's color associations are. You would assume that these associations would be derived entirely contextually, but they rarely seem to be. Rather, many of us seem to have "default settings." I'm not entirely sure what they mean. I usually first think blood or lipstick with red and the sun with yellow. However, I often don't think anything at all - in the case of the Bradley The Buyer cover, I see yellow. It stands out, but I don't get any suggested or additional layers of meaning.

These layers can be unpredictable, and for the person experiencing them, it seems as if it is all they can see. I am not a sports fan. I have often had design meetings where I present logos or layouts and the client or my co-workers say "those are the Stealer's colors," or the Packers. Or the women's regional softball team from Cincinnati. I simply wouldn't think of such things, and my response is invariably, "so?" Does white and red "mean" red cross? Does it mean Christmas? Of course there may be contextual indicators, but when there are none, some people seem to insist on them regardless.

I'll admit, I don't have a conclusion to this piece. I am presenting thoughts - I think it is interesting that we do this - but I am not entirely certain what it means. Do you think there is significance to the meanings that we associate with these things, particularly when we're not drawing them from context, or do you think it is arbitrary? The emphaticness with which people insist on an associated meaning seems to imply it is anything but arbitrary, but if so, what then?

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011. (Or sign up to be notified of its release on Amazon.com)

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