Kenya Hara Explores Our Perception of Colors


For the last few weeks I’ve been reading Kenya Hara’s book White, which was published by Lars Müller Publishers back in 2007. The book is a deep, thoughtful exploration of the color white, not only as a color, but also as it applies to the concepts of emptiness, communication and even Japanese tradition.

Two paragraphs in particular caught my attention, which do a good job of questioning the very idea of colors and the ways that we interpret them. By the time we’re adults we have a very set way of how we understand colors, so I find it to be an interesting exercise to try and change this perception, to think outside the box.

Things like the rich golden yellow of the yolk from a broken egg, or the color of tea brimming in a teacup, are not merely colors; rather the are perceived at a deeper level through their texture and their taste, attributes inherent in their material nature. People perceive color through the combination of such elements. In this regard, color is not understood through our visual sense alone, but through all our senses. Insofar as color systems are based solely on the physical, visual nature of objects, they cannot convey our total response.

The tactility of objects becomes a key part of our understanding of color. Whether it’s touch or taste or both, these factors play into our idea of what color is. I think these ideas are really key when it comes to designing physical objects, but I’m wondering how concepts like these apply to digital design, where tactility is still missing? Perhaps one day, when haptic feedback begins to be added to digital devices, that there will be a stronger relationship to the physical world.

When we try to imagine color, it may be necessary to erase from our mind all pre-established categories and return to a blank state. In fact the word iro, “color” in Japanese, also signifies “lover”; it contains a range of associations far broader than what color possess today. The box of twelve crayons we are given to draw with when we are small children shapes our perception for better or worse – it is from them that we garner concepts like “the color of water,” “flesh color,” and so on. But what if such parameters did not exist, and the words we had to describe color were far fewer? Would we see the color the same way we do today?

I think this is a great point, one which Hara goes into more detail about. These preconceived notions we have help us to survive, but it’s interesting to think of how different our lives would be without them. A lot of these ideas stem from a project I’m working on which questions the nature of color and how it shifts expectations. It’s like if you were to say red means go. Inherently you think that’s incorrect, that green is for go. Or how pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Wikipedia has a good rundown of how in the early 20th century, pink was thought of as a boy’s color.

If any of this interests you I’d recommend you snagging Hara’s book White which should give you a lot more great mind fodder.

Bobby Solomon

June 11, 2013 / By