Last night my sister came to me with a mission: she’s taking a quilting class and wanted to select nine harmonious fabrics to use in her first quilt. Because I own a vast amount of printed cotton fabric, she expected this task to be easy. It wasn’t!

As she pulled out bolt after bolt and ruminated over multiple possible combinations, I started to think about what makes a colour or a print pleasing to one person and ugly to another. I spend a lot of time making decisions about colour and scale and pattern, but it was interesting to watch somebody else engaged in this process.

We all know what we like when we see it – something in our brain just clicks. We live surrounded by visual stimuli and are constantly judging what we like and dislike from a multitude of choices. But I wonder how much of this is subjective, a reflection of our personal or cultural associations and biases, and how much is attributable to science.

A recent (2010) study at UC Berkeley by a team of psychologists devoted to the study of colour perception and aesthetics, postulated a new theory of colour preference. “Ecological Valance Theory” suggests that our preferences for colour may be part of an evolutionary process in which we naturally favour beneficial objects and healthy conditions. This might explain why the colour blue has near-universal appeal (because of its association with a blue sky), while dark yellow and orange, olive and brown hues are widely disliked in several countries they studied (perhaps because of a negative association with vomit, urine, you can use your imagination). I wonder what that says about me? I love mustard yellows, deep orange and earthy browns…

Other studies by the same team confirm what we all instinctively know about colour – that most of our preferences are based on association. Like our sense of smell, we’re wired to connect our senses with our experience, and this is what makes our reactions to colour so instinctive. That beloved childhood quilt, favourite food, or prized sports team all have an impact on our colour preferences, as do the things we dislike.

For professional designers in all disciplines, the use of colour combines art and science in ways that we might not fully understand, but that have powerful resonance for us all. It’s a fascinating challenge.

p.s. On an unrelated note, if you’d like to check out an interview I did last week on The Weather Network about dressing your children for Fall and Winter, you can check it out on YouTube here.

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