Colour is a funny thing. It’s something we all (well, most of us) experience every day in so many ways that we more-or-less take it for granted. But if you do stop to think about it, or study it, or try to understand what it really is in a scientific, technical or artistic sense is, you might find that, well, tricky…

Our perception of colour is a complex mashup of optics, physics, neurology, language, culture and aesthetics – and probably a lot more. Physicists try to explain that colour isn’t inherent in an object or surface, rather it’s our perception of the properties of visible light that gives rise to the sensation of colour. Clearer now? Not really, particularly when we introduce nuances like colour constancy and retinal fatigue which can change what we appear to see without our awareness.

Commercial interest in colour is in everything from architecture to paint  to cosmetics to fashion to manufacturing to construction to mining and, of course, to graphic design, display technology, printing and any of the many visual arts. In short: pretty much everywhere.

Scientific and academic interest extends to optics and vision science, spectrometry, photography, geology, cosmology and astronomy, machine learning, artificial intelligence, 3D perception… Not to mention colour psychology as applied in corporate design, communications, branding and influence.

Colour is studied in several fields of medicine and pathology. Skin colour has long been an indicator of health – jaundice as a marker of liver disfunction, blueness a warning of heart failure, the redness of our blood… Meanwhile colour therapists extol the benefits of certain colours on our mental and spiritual health and, at one time, on our our physical health.

There is a respected international panel of experts dedicated purely to standards in light and illumination: the Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage (CIE) or the Commission on Illumination (although it doesn’t sound anywhere near as good in English) continues to influence the science of colorimetry as it has done since the early 20th century.

There is also an industry group called the the International Color Consortium (ICC) from whom we get our working standards for device ‘profiles’ and calibration allowing, in theory anyway, consistent colour from screen to print. And the people at Pantone have long held the cards for de-facto standards in colour selection in the graphic arts.

A unified theory of colour

Colour, then, is a factor in so many commercial, scientific and academic fields but it is less commonly studied as a subject in its own right. We’re not the only show in town of course, but we fall within a relatively small niche of those interested in colour as a subject unto itself.

If we have to make a choice, it’s the graphic arts (design, printing and publishing) that have been at the core of our research and provided the initial impetus. But while that field remains close to our heart, we’re working towards a unified theory of colour, in the same way that physicists like Stephen Hawking and Einstein attempted to do for, well, everything. Granted they are big shoes to fill but you have to start somewhere…

Craig Kirkwood, Director of Colour.