Seeing Red: Behind the Psychology of Colour


The streets of Pamplona, Spain are filled with hordes of men fighting for a pathway to escape the charging bulls running rampantly and aimlessly after them, while women and children, tourists and bystanders wave excitedly from the overhanging balconies, cheering, calling out to the men to run, run, run!

Watching a video of the Encierro, or The Running of the Bulls, I saw how the coloured chaos, mixed with both excitement and anxiety of beast and man, filtered throughout the scene, segueing my thoughts to the arena of the matador and the bull. Many people have long held the belief that a bull’s rage is triggered when the taunting red Matador’s cape flashes its’ blood red silk in the eyes of the bull, thus coining the term ‘seeing red’. A dramatic concept for sure but contrary to belief, a bull is actually colour blind and is enraged only by the cape’s taunting movement. Fair enough.

The impact of colours

Delving deeper into the influences of colour on our psyche in our daily lives, I found the fascinating truth that colour has a strong determining factor in design and personal well-being. Indeed, the beauty of colour is in the eye of the beholder for technically speaking, there is a definite correlation to colour on our emotions. As our eyes transmit light to our brains it then translates light into colour. Together, these messages trigger familiar sensations of colour which then cause an emotional reaction to the colour waves.

Historically, this natural correlation between colour and mood has been studied and practiced for centuries in various cultures as a means of sensory therapy for treating physical and emotional ailments, thus restoring balance and harmony in the human body. Indian alternative medicinal practices such as Ayurveda, or “the knowledge for long life“, maintain the belief that certain colors in light and clothing are infused with healing energies that promote life, vitality, health and longevity, as colour is believed to be both absorbed through the eyes and skin. For example, the use of colours represent different deities, such as the sun which hold the restoring energy and is seen as the life force. Due to the studied effects of colour therapy within Ayurveda, it has been regulated as a legitimate form of medical practice in India since the early 1940s.

Colour & tradition

And we’ve all heard about the importance of good Feng Shui in our environment. Feng Shui is more about colours bringing various energies into a space through physical positioning in relation to the four main directions (East, West, South and North) representing the natural elements such as Fire, Water, Earth, Wood and Metal.

Experimenting with colour

Mid-century, chromotherapy was established as a trusted study of the healing powers of the use of colour in light once experiments demonstrated how the nervous system is affected by the use of visual colour.

Whether or not you believe that the integration of spirituality and science through colour has its merits, there is justification that our brain’s reaction to the energy of a colour’s wavelength affects us in both positive and negative ways. With an oxymoronic tendency, the positives and negatives of each colour element are in contradiction to each other so it’s important to take into consideration the combination of certain colours in relation to the other tones in a colour scheme as too much one of tone may offset the positive benefits of another.

Colours in design

Both the keen eye of an interior designer and marketer take heed of the persuasive qualities and combinations of colour, understanding that the sense of sight is far more heightened in people, more so than smell, taste, touch and sound. Surveys and test studies have shown that strategically placed visual colour cues of various products and merchandising elements have a significant impact on encouraging, or discouraging consumer purchasing. Think of those times you’ve walked into a specific retail boutique and sensed the immediate welcoming wave and sudden rush of excitement, driving you to eagerly explore the new products that were so beautifully merchandised. Or times when you’ve walked into a store that made you feel ill at ease, making you question whether it was the uncomfortable bright lights or the annoyingly blocked pathways through the merchandise that made you feel as though the walls were closing in around you. Although the latter is a more extreme reaction, it’s those negative reactions that will turn away customers and poorly affect your profit margins.

So if you are having a difficult time sleeping in your bedroom, or being productive in your office, it could very well be that your current colour scheme, or lack thereof, has subconsciously affected your brain’s activity or inactivity. Step up and harness the positive psychological benefits of the chroma colour wheel with its brain-to-emotion reaction by discussing your personal favourite colours and tones with a professional designer as they can best implement this knowledge to restore balance and harmony to your surroundings. You may just be pleasantly surprised by this new element in your life.


+ energy, physical courage, friendly

  aggression, defiance

Chroma: The longest wavelength and appears closer to us, demanding our attention.

Feng Shui: The fire element in Chinese culture represents luck and vibrant happiness while bringing joy and invigorating sexual desire.

Interior: Depending on the tone, red is a great colour choice for the entrance or reception area of an office of an advertising agency as it stimulates excitement. And if you want to create a little more heat in the bedroom red is good to go!


+ confidence, emotional strength, self-esteem

  fear, emotional fragility, weakness, anxiety, having a ‘yellow streak’

Chroma: The strongest colour of the spectrum as it has a long wavelength and is quite psychologically stimulating

Feng Shui: Fire and Earth elements yellow is the colour of sunlight which brightens and offers comfort

Interior: Used in rooms that promote playfulness and stimulating conversation such as a family room.


+ security, comfort, sensuality, abundance

  deprivation, frustration, frivolity, immaturity

Chroma: With both parts red and yellow orange tends to absorb mainly blue light which is why its complementary colour is blue azure.

Feng Shui: Considered a social colour it is a colour of comfort.

Interior: If red is too intense for your interior, try testing the orange tones which are great for promoting lively conversation.


+ balance, refreshment, restoration

boredom, stagnation

Chroma: This colour happens to be in the centre of the colour spectrum making green easy on the eye and very relaxing.

Feng Shui: Being of the Wood element, green is healing feng shui from nature, nourishing health and good vibrations. 

Interior: Depending on the tone, green has often been used in retail stores that promote sustainability, well-being and balance.


+ intellectual, efficiency, communicative, serenity

 cold, lacking emotion, unfriendly, which coins the term “feeling blue”

Chroma: Blue wavelengths are shorter in the visible spectrum as particles are well distributed.

Feng Shui: A most excellent colour for good feng shui, blue represents the openness of the sky and the tranquility of the sea.

Interior: For a deeper sleep, consider painting one or more walls in your bedroom a deep hue of blue.



+ luxury (a colour of of high class royalty), authenticity, spirituality

can also be associated with “cheap & tacky”, inferiority, introversion

Chroma: The shortest and last visible wavelength in the colour spectrum.

Feng Shui: Fire element has a high vibration so use sparingly and in rooms meant for mediation

Interior: When using red in a space, think tone, as too much use of purple can communicate a distasteful and cheap sensation while causing one to be overly introspective. Instead of using it for wall colour, opt for this colour in touches of decor elements.



+ commanding; absorbs all energy coming towards you

yet in the absence of light, it is the most “recessive colour” and can reduce attracting attention.

+ sophistication, glamour, security, emotional safety, efficiency, substance.

–  oppression, coldness, menacing, heaviness

Chroma: Considered more a hue than an actual colours, black has no colour wavelength and tends to absorb all the energy coming towards you. It is the most recessive so you’re not attracted to it.

Feng Shui: Considered an expression of Water, black can add sophistication and bring a sense of protection.

Interior: Although an entire wall painted black can be overwhelming, consider the front door of your home but only if it faces East or Southeast for any other direction is considered bad feng shui.


+ tranquillity, femininity, sexuality, nurture

  claustrophobia, emasculation, physical weakness

Chroma: Known to have a tranquilizing effect, pink triggers a mood of sensitivity and love which is why it is often chosen in facilities such as hospitals and even in prisons.

Feng Shui: The look of love is within and promoted by the colour pink, as it’s balance of the passion of red is in harmony with the white creative energy. So it’s befitting to fulfill your feng shui in your bedroom – the relationship area of your home – with calm, romance and relaxation in the far right corner of your room.

Interior: Pink does not have to be bubble gum or neon to add impact to a room. Instead, consider rich hues or subtle tones of pink to create a sophisticated accent; or layers of pink such as raspberry mixed with pink patterned textiles to ad interest and a good feeling focal point in a room.


+ psychologically neutral

suppressive, low confidence, dampness

Chroma: Between the high contrasts of black and white sits the perfect neutral colour of grey which is often associated with intellect and wisdom in a more formal authoritative capacity.

Feng Shui:  Grey elements of metal and water are best implemented in feng shui in an area used for transition and connection such as a new addition to your house, or a garage that connects the inside world to the outside.

Interior: Considered neutral, grey colours have one of three undertones that can complement or detract your surroundings (blue, green, purple).  Designers often use it as a background colour because of its neutrality; but be selective with your tones as grey can often instigate a feeling of depression due to its absence of colour. It’s about the usage of tone and balance with other colours as a heavy use of grey can convey a lack of confidence.

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