How Colour Can Be Used to Alter Our Perceptions of the Environment
An essay on colour by Jessica Duggan
Words by Megan Shepherd and Jessica Duggan
I speak to Jess Duggan, an artist based in London about climate change, colour and how the latter can be used to alter our perceptions of the former. With the recent wildfires in California and fatal floods in France and Italy, climate change discussion and strategies to tackle it are in the forefront of many peoples’ minds. Jess suggests a potentially revolutionary new way of utilising colour to aid in the fight against corporations for climate justice.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your work and what inspires you?
JD: Hello! I’m Jess, a designer based in London. I studied Graphic Communication Design at Central Saint Martins and graduated last year. My work is hugely based on simplicity as I love to challenge what is really needed to communicate a message – could a pink square tell the same story as an oil painted fairy tale? Colour and the environment hugely inspires my work. It’s almost a system I have come up with in my head whenever I respond to briefs. What colour(s) can work the best for this project and why? How does it link to sustainability, and if not – how can I link it? I think it’s really important for me to use my creative practice for the greater good. I can’t imagine dedicating my practise towards unsustainable consumerism. I’m always so pleased to be able to use my skills for the greater good and enforce positive change in various areas.
What led you to become interested in colour theory and the potential of colour as symbolic in culture and society?
JD: It actually started in my final year of university. We were given a brief by a tutor, which asked us to respond to a random set of 12 numbers. I remember being stumped, thinking I hate numbers! (I have dyscalculia aka dyslexia in numbers) and really didn’t know what to do with the twelve digits. I knew that I could see colours for each of the numerals and initially coloured them in, assigning them the colour I could see for each. 6 is always yellow, for example. I’d asked classmates and family to do the same, to translate the numbers into each colour they see. Some people looked at me as though I was mad and others didn’t see any colours at all. I’d always thought that everyone saw colours when they thought of or saw numbers, turns out that’s not true! A friend of mine mentioned I may have synaesthesia and ever since then I have found it super interesting and wanted to push this newfound realisation into something important, such as communicating important social issues through colour and design.
Can you outline the key concepts of your essay? What can we as a generation on the brink of irreversible climate change take away from your findings?
JD: The key concepts of my essay were to essentially highlight areas in which colour has been used well, or not so well for communication purposes and how it plays a subconscious role in our decision making and ways of feeling. One finding that I had learnt through my research was that in Afghanistan, there was a terrifying misuse of the colour yellow. Cluster bombs falling from the sky were painted a bright yellow as were food packages. As a result, people mistook the bombs for food packages due to the deception that yellow packages were safe. This is a chilling example, but it really explains the potential force colour can have on our perceptions. I believe what we can do as ‘the last generation to have the power to reverse the effects of climate change’ is to get creative. Colour is a great starting point to analyse people’s behaviour around particular things. Such as the infamous Olafur Eliasson work ‘The Weather Project’ (2003) in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern and how viewers were almost attracted to the warmth of the ‘sun’ like a magnet. The thick hue filling up the vast space of the Turbine Hall encouraged visitors to bathe in this artificial light, read books and relax. I find it interesting how people can feel differently depending on colour. For instance, Eliassons work was replaced with a blue coloured ‘sun’ – would it have the same effect? I think colour works as a way of instant communication of a way of feeling. This is why I thought it was a necessary question for me to ask ‘What colour is climate change?’ so I could push this ideology further.
You discuss how colour can act as a ‘tool of persuasion’ and can subconsciously alter our attitudes – in short, how do you think this can be used for good? Can you give any examples of how this has already happened?
JD: Colour being used as a tool of persuasion is constantly around us – yet we do not realise because it is so subconscious. For example, I find this to be most prevalent in semiotics / road signs. One instantly knows that a bright red circle with a white rectangle within it means ‘no’ or ‘stop’. If we were to replace this sign with a different colour such as green, it wouldn’t have the same effects. However when we think of how this has been used for good, semiotics and the use of simplistic design paired with a bright, bold colour has the potential to save lives by encouraging viewers to halt, slow, turn back, etc. Another example of colour being used for good is when we gauge the safety of the weather by using colour codes such as ‘yellow warning’ or, when at the beach, ‘red flags’. These are in place as quick, instant communication in order to potentially save oneself from harm which is especially important today as climate-related weather changes and natural disasters are becoming a lot more common.
We’re currently seeing natural disasters such as the California wildfires ravage our planet, largely sparked by climate change, how do you think design and colour could be used in these sorts of scenarios? Has anything changed in regards to your findings?
JD: Since this is such a huge natural disaster, I think that huge signs that scream and shout the effects of this issue is quite important, for the people who don’t believe that climate change is real *cough* Trump *cough*. It is so important for everyone to be on the same level when it comes to recognising climate related disasters and what we can do about it. Colour in this scenario can play a role in emotional response to the disaster.
Do you think personal circumstance alters colour perception? If so, will this influence the ways colour can affect change across different populations, or is it a one size fits all model?
JD: Yes and no. Yes because we associate colours with what we already know, for example, already knowing that the red, yellow and green on traffic lights signal stop, get ready, go. However, there are studies to suggest that colour within itself has the power to change how we feel. For example, a crisp white room gives a feeling of openness, or, a particular pink named ‘baker-miller pink’ is used in some prison cells in the USA to calm stressed inmates. So without having personal circumstances to particular colours, we can still possess unique perceptions.
I found your question “what colour is climate change?” to be very interesting, have you come up with any conclusions since asking it?
JD: To answer this question, or at least come up with a conclusion was to ask the public through questionnaires and surveys. I had asked ‘what colour is climate change?’ in online and physical surveys for a few weeks around the Central Saint Martins Kings Cross campus. After organising the responses, I had found that the most common answers were largely warm colours such as orange, yellow and red. I do wonder whether this would change if I were to recreate the survey and to have it open for a longer time. Would the answers stay the same?
Any advice you can give to us as consumers?
JD: Being a consumer myself, my advice is to keep it as simple as possible and to not feel too guilty about your plastic purchases or new fuzzy jumper from COS. This is because we are part of a broken system, a system that needs to change and it can be difficult to make effective differences without spending lots of money, without eco-refill stores nearby and so on. So, if you do really want a new jumper, one thing I always ask myself – will I wear this at least 30 times? And will I be able to resell this item for someone else to enjoy when I’m tired of it? I think instead of feeling guilty, we should be more mindful with our purchases and find new ways to beat the system and create a better, more eco conscious and fluid one ourselves
What’s next for you?
JD: For me, I’m taking it slow and enjoying the small things around me. Lockdown has definitely given me a different outlook on life and encouraged me to take better care of myself. To take care of the planet you have to take care of yourself first! Design wise, I’m starting to teach myself new techniques such as animation and have picked up my sewing machine again. I hope this will give me more creative freedom when I take on new projects.