Color Matters: The Brain: The Meaning of Color for Gender

by Natalia Khouw

What we see and interact with is in color, includes both natural and built environments. About 80% of the information which we assimilate through the sense, is visual. However, color does more than just give us objective information about our world-it affects how we feel. The presence of color become more important in interior environment, since most people spend more time inside than outside.

The Meaning of Color for Gender

Is there a gender difference in response to color? Although findings are ambiguous, many investigations have indicated that there are differences between gender in preferences for colors. Early investigations done by by Guilford (1934) on the harmony of color combinations found that a person is likely to see balance in colors that are closely related or the opposite. Guilford also found some evidence that more pleasing results were obtained from either very small or very large differences in hue rather than medium differences, with this tendency more frequent in women than men.

A review of color studies done by Eysenck in the early 1940's notes the following results to the relationship between gender and color. Dorcus (1926) found yellow had a higher affective value for men than women, and St. George (1938) maintained that blue for men stands out far more than for women. An even earlier study by Jastrow (1897) found men preferred blue to red and women red to blue. Eysenck's study, however, found only one gender difference with yellow being preferred to orange by women and orange to yellow by men. This finding was reiforced later by Birren (1952) who found men preferred orange to yellow; while women placed orange at the bottom of the list.

Guilford and Smith (1959) found men were generally more tolerant toward achromatic colors than women. Thus, Guilford and Smith proposed that women might be more color-concious and their color tastes more flexible and diverse. Likewise, McInnis and Shearer (1964) found that blue green was more favored among women than men, and women preferred tints more than shades. They also found 56% of men and 76% of women preferred cool colors, and 51% men and 45% women chose bright colors. In a similar study, Plater (1967) found men had a tendency to prefer stronger chromas than women.

Rikard Kuller (1976) conducted a study on the effects of color in two opposite environments. Six men and six women were asked to stay in two rooms, one room was colorful and complex; while the other was gray and sterile. Electroencephalogram (EEG) and pulse rates were recorded throughout the period, as well as the individuals' subjective emotional feelings. The results showed heart rates were faster in the gray room than in the colorful room. Moreover, men were found to have stress reactions more than women. Men also became more bored than did the women in the gray room. Kuller also postulated that men could not achieve the same degree of mental relaxation as women.

Thomas, Curtis, and Bolton (1978) interviewed 72 Nepalese and asked them to list the names all the colors they could think of. There was a significant difference between men and women. Although, the women consistently listed more color names than men did, the cultural context of this study must be noted since Nepalese women traditionally wear more colorful clothing than men do. A similar study by Greene (1995) examined the color identification and vocabulary skills of college students. They were asked to identify the colors of 21 color chips. The results showed that women recognized significantly more elaborate colors than did the men. Findings also indicated that gender different responses in color identification may be attributed to a difference in the socialization of men and women.

Another study examined the appropriateness of colors used on the walls of a simulated domestic interior furnished in one of three styles; Georgian, Art Nouveau and Modern. Whitfield (1984) reported that internal consistency among women is higher than for men. When the study was broadened to include marital status, married women achieve significantly more internal consistency in each condition of the three styles than did the men.

More recently, Radeloff (1990) has found that women were more likely than men to have a favorite color. In expressing the preferences for light versus dark colors, there was no significant differences between men and women; however, in expressing the preference for bright and soft colors, there was a difference, with women preferring soft colors and men preferring bright ones.


Gender and the Meaning of Color in Interior Environments

by Natalia Khouw


The six abstract color palettes used in the Guerin, Park, and Yang (1995) model to test the meaning of color in interior environments were incorporated into a computer generated 3-D commercial lobby space. The computer-generated images in the six color palettes were reproduced into slides. Each slide illustrated the same furniture groupings with the following differences in the color palettes:

A questionnaire was developed from the 21 words used by Guerin, Park, and Yang (1995) to describe the characteristics of interior environments. Subjects were asked to respond to each descriptor with zero suggesting the characteristic was not present; and five that the characteristic was largely present. In other words, as the number increased, so did the degree of presence of the characteristic (see descriptor list below).



The responses were separated into men and women categories and examined based on the responses to each descriptor. Three factors were found to emerge after a factor analysis was performed on the 21 decriptive words using Varimax rotation. Each factor was then assigned a name based on the underlying contruct that found to be in common within each set of adjective descriptors (see list below).

Livability Factor:

pleasant, comfortable, inviting, calming, airy, spacious, casual, open, modest, attractive.

Organization Factor:

ordered, unified, coordinated, formal, sophisticated, expensive, rich.

Symptomatic Factor:

exciting, diverse, complex, intricate.


This exploratory work reinforces evidence from other studies that have found color responses to be influenced by gender differences. Previous studies have shown men are relatively more tolerant to achromatic colors than women (Guilford & Smith, 1959). Meanwhile in this study found the percentages of men rated the color palettes with chromatic relationships higher than did women, especially the interiors with high chroma such as Interior 2 and Interior 5. It is postulated that, in general, men are more tolerant to the use of either achromatic or chromatic colors in interiors.

An examination of the results across all six interiors found only Interior 5 as having significantly different responses between the genders to the color relationships applied in the interior. With its cool hue, medium value dominant, high chroma, and medium contrast, Interior 5 was considered more favorable by men than women who felt there was too much contrast. Researches have shown that cool hues such as blue are seen as calming and relaxing, whereas warm hues such as red are seen as exciting and stimulating. With red and blue as the dominant colors in Interior 5, it suggested that the combination of this two extreme color characteristics creates confusion and distraction, with higher frequency of these reactions in women than men. Surprisingly, Walton and Morrison found that the combination of red and blue, on the contrary, were most preferred by adults (Birren, 1978).

As one contemplates the findings from a design viewpoint, a few suggestions can be made. It is clear that each color palette has its own characteristics, in terms of how the subjects responded to the three factors of Livability, Organization, and Symptomatic. The factors obtained for each interior are relevant to several different design applications. For example, the design of retail spaces such as clothing stores targeted to attract specific genders might wish to take into consideration the impact of color and color relationships in the store design. The results of this study suggest that the color palettes used in Interior 1 and Interior 3 would be the best match for attracting men into the store because the Livability factor and the Symptomatic factor is higher for men in those interiors than any other interiors.

Only six color treatments were tested in this study. Therefore, the study of additional color palettes will expand the range of choices and will provide a better understanding on gender and the color relationships in the interior environments.

This study also suggested that, regardless of gender, people are most sensitive to the chroma used in interior spaces. Subjects in this study tend to dislike the warm-colored environments that had high chroma and high contrast as in Interior 2, and medium chroma and medium contrast, as in Interior 6. Overall, the subjects in this study felt that warm-colored environments with medium and high chroma were generally unpleasant and overpowering; yet, both men and women agreed that the Organization factor and the Symptomatic factor were present in Interior 2 and Interior 6. On the other hand, another warm-colored environment, Interior 3 with medium chroma and low contrast, was listed as the most preffered interior and subjects considered it as appealing and calming. In addition, Interior 3 were rated as higher on the Livability factor and Symptomatic factor, but lower on the Organization factor; with on women responding more positively to the Livability factor, while men responding more positively to the Symptomatic factor.

Previous research has indicated that subjects perceived warm-colored environments as less attractive and less pleasant than cool-colored environments (Bellizzi & Crowley, 1983). However, according to the evidence gathered from this study, subjects in this study appeared to be more effected by the combination of color properties such as hue, value, and chroma, than by the coolness or wamth alone. In other words, the subject's impressions of color seemed to be more subtle and effected not just by the cooolness or warmness of the color palette, but also by the calibration of value, chroma, and contrast used in the interiors.

Further research on the relationship between gender and the meaning of color in the interior environment is suggested. Parallel interdiciplinary studies that examine aspects of culture, human psychology and physiology would provide a more complete understanding of gender color responses to color relationships and the meaning of color. This exploratory study has provide data that needs broadening in order to provide the design community with more information about the relationship of color and meaning in the design of interior spaces.