1-4244-1243-9/07/$25.00 ©2007 IEEE
Emotion-Spectrum Response to Form and Color: Implications for Usability
Brigham Young University
University of South Alabama
Previous empirical studies have shown consistent
emotional responses to form and color, across a variety
of contexts and especially across cultures. What varies
from context to context and culture to culture is the
evaluation of the color/form/emotion response. For
example, both the color red and jagged, high contrast
forms consistently evoke one emotional response neutrally
described as agitation or activation, a response
evaluated negatively as anger or positively as excitement.
Standard taxonomies of emotion do not consistently
distinguish between the evaluation of an emotion and its
raw quality. Consequently, the consistent relationships
between form/color and emotion have been obscured;
evaluative emotional descriptions of color/form do vary
from person to person, context to context, and culture to
culture. We propose a new model of emotional response
which treats color/form triggers of emotion quality
separately from triggers of emotion evaluation. This
new model identifies a spectrum of emotional quality
concerned) generally parallel to the familiar color
With this model, we can demonstrate a stable emotion-
spectrum response in a population of viewers, to any
given combination of form and color. This paper will
report on empirical tests of this emotion spectrum model
and discuss implications for usability testing of visual
Introduction: emotion and evaluation
Citing black as both a color of mourning in the U.S.
versus the bride's wedding color in parts of Europe, Kress
and Van Leeuwen  pessimistically evaluate semantic
models of color, assuming that ideational meaning is the
kind of meaning that matters when talking about color
(red=stop, green = go, white=good, black=bad, etc.).
Ideational color meaning varies from context to context,
but that is equally true of ideational word meaning (i.e.
cup=drinking vessel, cup=sports equipment, etc.).
In contrast to the ideational meaning of color, this
study will examine the affective aspect of color meaning,
in other words the raw emotional response.
There have been a number of empirical studies (e.g. by
Collier , Zetner , Ou et. al. , and Xin et. al. )
showing consistent emotional responses to form and
color, across a variety of contexts and especially across
cultures. In these studies, what varies most about color
meaning is the evaluation of the color/form/emotion
response, as observed by Oyama:
Cross-cultural comparisons indicated wide
generality of affective and symbolic meanings of
colors and forms. However, some cultural differences
were found, especially in evaluation. Affective
meanings of various color combinations and colored
forms were compared with those of component colors
and forms ... but interaction between components
were found important especially in the evaluative
dimension. [6, p. 137]
In short, the emotional response to, for example, a
composite figure that combined red and yellow was found
to correlate with the emotional response to both red alone
and yellow alone (as high as .96 for the "active"
emotional interpretation of these colors), but this
correlation is partly obscured by positive or negative
evaluation (reducing the correlation to .55), whether the
subjects happened to evaluate the exact form of the
combination as good or bad, ugly or attractive [5, p.
Such results point to a significant widespread problem
in color-meaning research: the model of emotional
responses to color has been constructed primarily of terms
with a strong evaluative component. That is, terms like
angry, sad, or ugly imply a negative evaluation, while
pleased, happy, or attractive imply a positive evaluation.
In addition many such "emotion" terms have also
involved an ideational component (i.e. a necessary mental
picture in addition to a raw feeling) with can further
obscure consistent color-emotion responses, as for
example, in the emotion-term inventory offered to test
subjects by Ou et. al. [4, p. 236] –
Four word-pairs that relate more or less directly to raw
feeling or raw emotion:
Warm–cool, Heavy–light, Active–passive, Hard–soft,
Two word-pairs that involve ideational concepts as well a
And four word pairs that involve both evaluation (a sense
of good vs. bad) and ideational concepts:
Clean–dirty, Like-dislike, Tense–relaxed, Fresh–stale.
Ou et. al. [4, p. 238-239] only report reliable
correlations of color and emotion for the terms that we
here identify as being free of both ideation and evaluation:
Warm–cool, Heavy–light, Active–passive, and Hard–soft.
This result compares with those of Oyama et. al. cited
The studies cited so far (and a good many others) have
all relied on a single theoretical model of emotion
proposed back in 1957 by Osgood et. al. . Collier's
1996 study found the Osgood model only suitable as a
"first approximation" for mapping color and form to
emotional response, noting that further refinements to the
theory of emotion were needed to account for his
experimental results [2, p. 1].
It is also difficult to derive practical information-
design guidelines from the various empirical studies
based on the Osgood et. al. model of emotion. Practically
minded designers of advertisements, web pages or
software interfaces seem unlikely to wish to communicate
"warmth" per se, or "coolness" or "heaviness" or
"softness," these being tactile metaphors for common
emotions rather than precise descriptions of the emotions
It seems more precise to say that designers might wish
to make viewers feel the urge to act, i.e. feel agitated or
stimulated. They might instead wish viewers to feel a
sense of fun or freedom, i.e. feel diverted or amused.
They might instead wish to make viewers feel settled or
at peace, calmed or organized, focused on, concerned
with, or challenged by some issue. It would therefore be
useful to know what strategies of color choice and color-
form combinations can reliably produce these emotional
effects, even in a single culture if not cross-culturally.
However, no theory proposed thus far has this kind of
practical reach, as noted by Puhalla (2008):
Color is used as a coded information system in
design, architecture, cartography, science, medicine,
industry and government. However, principles for the
application of color in these systems have little
documented research as their basis. Due to the lack of
scientific research in the area of color organization,
objective color structuring has a weak theoretical base
and no means of producing predictive value. Simple
laws of color organization are believed to be skewed
by human subjective responsiveness. [8, p. 200]
In this paper we will propose a refined theoretical
model of emotion, capturing the range of practical
emotions described above with dimensions based on the
primary categories from the model of meaning developed
by C.S. Peirce . We will review results from our
initial empirical test of this model, evaluating it in terms
of its ability to capture reliable correlations between color,
form, and emotion. We will also discuss direct
implications of our results for information design and
Method: theory and experiment
Peirce's central claim was that all of our perceptual,
physical, and intellectual experiences decompose into
simple or complex configurations of three primary
categories, which he rather abstractly designated as
firstness, secondness, and thirdness. For purposes of
discussion here, we will more concretely reference these
same categories as (1) potential, (2) reaction, and (3)
pattern. In theory then, potential, reaction, and pattern
are the building blocks of all experiences, just as three
primary colors can be combined in different ways to create
different shades of color, ultimately millions of
distinctions detectable to the human eye.
There are likewise indefinitely many shades of
possible emotion or feeling. Just as millions of colors
are still classifiable in broad ranges of primary colors and
their secondary combinations (red-orange-yellow-green-
blue-purple), all these emotional shades would be
classifiable within the Peircean framework in the range of
the primaries or secondary combinations of those
primaries: emotions felt as potential, felt as reaction,
and/or felt as pattern. Anger for example we would
construe primarily as reaction (Peircean category 2,
evaluated negatively). Obsession for example we would
construe as a combination of reaction and pattern
(Peircean categories 2+3, evaluated negatively). That is,
when we feel obsessed, we feel obsessed about (i.e. in
reaction to) something, a repetitive reaction that will
persist (i.e. as a pattern).
Evaluated more neutrally, if someone primarily reacts
to something, we would say that person feels agitated or
challenged. If someone reacts in a patterned, perpetual
way, we would say that person is focused on or concerned
about that thing. The rest of our postulated range of
emotions, with their Peircean category analysis, is
summarized in Table 1.
Table 1. Range of Emotions as Peircean Categories
Peirce's first category, potential, defines the neutral,
positive, and negative values of category-1 emotion in
Table 1. That is, to feel diverted is to feel a range of
possibilities or potentials, not feeling focused on or
driven to one course of experience or action. To be
entertained is to be diverted by a range of potentials in a
"happy" way. To be distracted is to be diverted by a
range of potentials in an "unhappy" way.
Note that category 1 emotion (diverted-entertained-
distracted) is the structural complement and semantic
opposite of the category 2+3 emotion (focused-
committed-obsessed), in exactly the same way that yellow
is the color complement of purple, but this is perhaps
most apparent in the semantically neutral descriptions,
diverted vs. focused. Complement/opposite relations also
hold that are analogous to red/green and orange/blue,
between agitated (2) vs. calmed (1+3), and between
organized (3) vs. stimulated (1+2) in the sense that
stimulation always disrupts existing organizations and
patterns in some way.
In theory, all other conceivable emotions can be placed
somewhere with in the ranges indicated in Table 1.
Positive and negative emotion values might be considered
roughly equivalent to light and dark values of color. High
and low intensities of emotion might be considered
roughly equivalent to high and low saturation levels of
color. However, our main concern in this study is the
relationship between the postulated emotional spectrum,
and the familiar color (i.e. temperature) spectrum, red-
Our first hypothesis is that these neutrally-described
emotions correlate reliably their model colors, especially
in the absence of distracting factors such as
positive/negative evaluation and ideational association,
such as the connection between the color blue and water,
between the color red and communism, etc.
Our second hypothesis is that these neutrally described
emotions also correlate with distinct form qualities,
formal variety correlating with diversion-range emotions,
formal contrast correlating with agitation-range emotions,
and formal repetition correlating with organization-range
emotions. In practice, it is impossible to separate color
from form, since even a large region of solid color has a
form (with low contrast and possible negative correlation
with agitation, we would expect). We thus designed our
experiment to also take form-emotion correspondences
The corresponding null hypothesis would be that the
associations between specific colors/forms and specific
emotions would be statistically unreliable or random.
We constructed an online survey with password-
protected login and automatically tabulated results. The
survey contained four sections.
Section one consisted of a participation-consent form
in keeping with IRB (Institutional Review Board)
guidelines for research involving human subjects.
Section two invited participants to provide simple
demographic information, age, gender, and state or
country of origin.
Section three presented 21 abstract figures, each
approximately 2 x 3 inches in display size, each
presenting a distinct form/color combination. Figures
sampled the whole range of form possibilities (variety-
contrast-pattern) and color temperatures (red-orange-
yellow-green-blue-purple). Figures consisted of high-
resolution .jpg files, checked in several web browsers and
PC platforms for color fidelity.
Participants were asked to make three choices from a
menu of twelve possible emotional responses, in
A. agitated B. amused C. attracted D. calmed
E. challenged F. concerned G. diverted H. focused
I. organized J. resolved K. rested L. stimulated
The alphabetical order of the menu options served to
scramble our postulated emotion spectrum and reduce the
likelihood of order-of-mention bias. Including twelve
options and three choices among them allows for the
possibility of nuanced gradations between the six major
divisions predicted by the Peircean model, also allowing
us to refine our emotion terminology, to discover whether
some emotion terms were apt than others based on the
Section four repeated 10 of the figures from section
three, specifically the non-colored forms. Participants
were offered a menu of twelve HTML-defined colors (this
time in spectral order, red-orange-yellow, etc.) and asked
to pick three colors with which the abstract black and
white forms seemed to best correspond.
Technical communication students enrolled at a
regional university were invited to participate in this
survey. They received no instruction or information about
form/color/emotion correspondences prior to the study.
Participation was strictly voluntary. Of 44 invited
participants, 33 successfully completed the survey.
Results: form/color and emotion spectra
From the compiled responses we can generate a
histogram for each survey figure. Each histogram can be
thought of as the spectral emotion analysis of its figure,
directly analogous to the spectrum of color components
that can be extracted from any given light source, or the
wave components extracted from any given sound source.
In most cases, the spectral response to each figure is
consistent with our hypotheses, correlations of form/color
and emotion are statistically reliable, at least in this
population of survey participants. The null hypothesis is
decisively ruled out by the data, that only essentially
random and idiosyncratic associations would be found
between form/color and emotion.
Figures 1, 2, 3, and 4 illustrate general patterns found
in the data. Broadly speaking, form has a more powerful
effect on perceived emotion, but different color hues also
make distinct, non-negligible contributions to overall
Figure 1. Agitated-diverted range responses from red-
yellow range color and/or contrastive- variable form.
Figure 1 shows the range of form and color that evoke
a predominantly challenged-agitated-diverted response and
predominantly suppress the range of rested-calmed-
organized responses. Note that the intensity of this effect
is strongest in the black-and-white form (peak response =
21), and weakest for the solid color field (peak response =
14). Even the solid color response is statistically
significant however (standard deviation = 5.8, mean
response = 8).
Figure 2 shows the range of form and color that evoke
a predominantly diverted-rested-calm response and
suppress challenged-agitated-diverted responses. Again the
effect is most strongly tied to form, specifically the
absence of strong contrast. As a result, the solid (i.e.
utterly non-contrastive) color field boosts the calming
effect (peak response = 27) but also the solid color also
suppresses the diverted-amused effect, presumably due to
a lack of variable form.
Figure 3 shows the range of form and color that evoke
a predominantly calm-organized-focused response and
suppress agitated-diverted-rested responses. Here the
repetition of form elements (i.e. pattern) accounts for the
largest effect (peak = 22), but the effect remains
significant even in the minimally patterned colored form.
Figure 2. diverted-rested-calm range responses from
yellow-green-blue range color and/or variable-
Figure 3. Pattern and blue-range color effects.
Figure 4. The "calm ceiling" for unpatterned blue vs.
"calm cancellation" for high-contrast green.
Figure 4 illustrates further form-over-color effects. In
particular, blue-range color does not readily evoke a
feeling of organization or focus without at least minimal
formal pattern support (compare Figure 3 bottom). Thus,
unpatterned blue color apparently hits the "calm" ceiling,
indicating a range of emotion to which color may
contribute, but only with the "boost" of formal
patterning. Conversely, the addition of heavy formal
contrast and variety to an otherwise "restful" color like
green effectively cancels any restful/calming effect.
Figure 5 samples results from section four of the
survey. Here we investigate whether formal patterns can
evoke a consistent sense of color directly, or whether
form-color associations are essentially mediated by
emotional responses. The results illustrated suggest that
there is a form/color association roughly parallel to
form/emotion and color/emotion associations, comparing
the raw color responses in Figure 5 with the emotion
spectra for the black-and-white stimuli in Figures 1, 2,
and 3. However, the entire body of data suggests only a
strong correlation (0.71) for Red-range color associations
with contrastive form. Yellow-range associations are not
found in this data. Green range associations with formal
variety are present but weak (0.44) and Blue-range
associations with pattern are weaker still (0.18). Overall
results are shown in Table 2.
Figure 5. Form-color associations without the
mediation of emotional response.
Table 2. Combined data for form-color association
without emotion-response mediation.
Discussion: theory and results
Visual design elements have elsewhere been classified
within a Peircean framework as decorative if their primary
purpose is to evoke feeling or in other words emotion
[10, p.2]. A decorative by definition in this framework is
perceived as a unified gestalt, is interpreted by means of
association to prior perceptual experience, and is
interpreted as feeling rather than as direct reference to
physical things or to information.[10, p.5].
Conclusion: results and usability
All in all this turned out really well. One can
envision emotion-spectrum analysis being part of the
usability test of any decoration-heavy visual design.
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About the Authors
Alan Manning is a professor of linguistics and English
language at Brigham Young University. He teaches
graduate courses in writing and research design and
undergraduate courses in linguistics and editing. He is a
coauthor of Revising Professional Writing Science and
Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (with
Riley, Campbell, and Parker, Parlay Press).
Nicole Amare is an assistant professor of technical
writing at the University of South Alabama. She teaches
technical writing, editing, stylistics, and grammar. She
has written Real Life University, a college success guide,
and has edited Global Student Entrepreneurs and Beyond
the Lemonade Stand. With Barry Nowlin, she is a
coauthor of Technical Editing: Products and Processes
(forthcoming from Pearson Education).