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Colour + Perception

Design Update talks to Sussex Colour Group & Baby Lab researcher Alice Skelton about colour, perception, nature and nurture.


Design Update: Can you describe the focus of the Sussex Colour Group?

Alice Skelton: Our research area is colour perception and how it develops from infancy to adulthood. There are lots of angles to that, including how our perception and aesthetic preferences around colour are impacted by the environments we grow up in. My particular background is philosophy and psychology but there are around 15 of us in the lab here at the University of Sussex, which was set up by Professor Anna Franklin in 2011. You’ll find us conducting our research in a light-tight black box.

DU: What does the world of colour look like to babies?

AS: A popular misconception is that new-borns can only see in black and white, but there have been around 50 years of studies showing that babies discriminate between red and white light, although they don’t discriminate in the same way between blue and white. It appears that the red-green dimension of colour vision develops earlier than the blue-yellow, which comes at around 2–3 months. By that point the mechanisms are essentially the same as an adult’s but with the saturation dial turned right down, so the world is very washed out. Babies need colours to be very intense. It’s a shame when you think of all those pastel environments they arrive into…

DU: And how does colour perception develop from
there, when does nurture take over from nature?


AS: It’s difficult to know when the balance tips from nature to nurture. It might be when children are learning colour words around age 3 that they start tuning into culture more than sensation with their grouping of colour. But that’s just one small part of colour perception and we’re still learning how nature/nurture fits together. Colour categorisation is closely connected to language and different languages have different colour categories, which complicates things. English has 11 what we call basic colour terms – red, green, blue and so on – but Turkish has 12 with separate categories for light and dark blue, and some languages have only five. Broadly speaking colour sensitivity doubles with age, peaking in adolescence, so a 10-year old’s will be twice as good as a five-year old’s.

DU: What is the Group working on now?

AS: We’ve just completed a study that compared how long 30 babies looked at photos of cities versus photos of nature. Perhaps surprisingly, the babies looked for longer at the cities, which ties in with a similar recent study from another lab on toddlers and young children. People might presume that natural environments will be more visually appealing to babies, but it seems that’s a learned response.


Younger children and babies are driven by what we call low-level sensory mechanisms. Very early colour preference seems to be defined by what grabs their attention most, like high contrasts. How that evolves into colour preferences expressed in terms of ‘I like it’ is an interesting question, and one we
don’t yet know the answer to. We’ve also recently done some consultation with a couple of theatre groups doing productions around the subject of infant colour perception – First Light at the Barbican and Kaleidoscope by Filskit Theatre.

DU: Are you just looking at colour in a UK context?

AS: No, we have two cross-cultural projects running at the moment. One with a team in Ecuador focusing on people who live in the rainforest versus people who live in the capital city of Quito. The other is looking at how colour perception changes across the year above the Arctic Circle, with 24 hours of daylight in summer and 24 hours of darkness in winter. Both these projects involve observations of adults doing tasks but also wearing headcams, so we can get an idea of their visual experience, and sensors so we can gauge their light exposure. The Ecuador project involves groups with shared genetic backgrounds but different developmental experiences. What’s surprising so far is that although the city and rainforest are apparently very different, with one environment feeling very green and the other very grey, the essential colour experience of bluish-yellow natural light appears remarkably constant.

DU: Is colour subjective?

AS: It’s a big question. In a fundamental way no, because most people have three functioning colour receptors and mine are very similar to yours. But it gets more complicated as you get further through the visual system. You may remember the Twitter sensation of ‘the dress’ a few years ago. People couldn’t agree if an image showed a blue and black or a white and gold dress, and it turned out this depended on whether they thought the picture was taken in shade or sunlight. We might be getting the same visual input but because we all carry around expectations of what we're going to see without even realising it, we can come to some very different conclusions. Mostly, however, we agree on what red is, even if we might disagree around the boundaries of where red turns pink.

DU: Sometimes it seems there’s lots of opinion around the psychology of colour but less in the way of evidence…

AS: Yes. I wouldn’t advise wearing a particular colour to make you feel better, for instance. But if wearing that colour does make you feel better, that’s likely to be down to associations rather than something inherent to the colour. Fortunately, associations are things that can be researched too.