This paper is the proposal for the Final Presentation on my Graduate Semintar, at Virginia Commonwealth University.


Color and Psychology (Download as a PDF – Recommended)


This is a ­paper in three acts concerning my two different academic backgrounds: psychology and design. On the first act, I will try to deal with my own experience of studying psychology and the context in which I studied it. This act is very autobiographical and I decided to write so you, my dear reader, can appreciate where I’m coming from (Also, because I just wanted to write it).What did I really learn it? What upper hand do I have in design because of it? How did it shape me? The second act of this trilogy deals with the subject of what can design learn from psychology. The third one is the inverse, what can psychology learn from design.

What I learned from my Psychology degree.

The first thing that I can say about my education in psychology, looking back in retrospective, is that it had very little to do with psychology; at least, in the way most people think about psychology. I didn’t learn about ‘therapy’ or ‘helping people’. I didn’t learn to read minds. I didn’t learn about psychological conditions. I never took a class on neurobiology. What the hell did I do for three years?

The first thing I think about is that my almost 700 student psychology department was split into two strong factions. These factions were like black and white, capitalist and communist, Elvis and Bach, Yankees and Red Sox, Delacroix and Ingres… They didn’t like each other very much, but this difference was only apparent to those who had an eye for it. On one side there were the scientists. They were instructed primarily on research. They were instructed on treating psychology with the rigor and practices of science. They used APA style very strictly and read academic journals with the latest psychological findings. They were very much into neurobiology and cognitive psychology. I always saw them as the Americans. They did psychology the American style and they got rewarded for it! They got millions and millions of dollars from institutions NIH. There students were funded by stipends and later on went to American universities to do even more research. They had big buildings with expensive equipment.  In my opinion, they were boring. They read boring journals about nothing important and did boring experiments that proved absolutely nothing about nothing important. Then there were the underdogs. The second faction lived almost purely for the purpose of critizing the first one. They had nothing. No money, no facilities, no grad students. They hated American psychology because Americans did stupid research about nothing in particular. They hated American psychology because they thought that considering psychology merely as a science was a dis-service to it. They thought psychology and the human being were to complex to be measured and subjected to the scientific method. They talked about politics and they were mad. Their rage was felt. They were left leaning and the descendents of the revolutionaries of the sixties that had taken over the whole world, and had a particular debt to the communist tradition and theory more common in Europe and Latin America.

The beauty of this is that students could, through their electives and professors, choose a side and decide what they wanted to learn inside the same program. Naturally, I leaned towards the second one. They questioned a lot more. They discussed and criticized a lot more and, besides, their readings were a lot more interesting. Rather than reading boring, current psychology journals; we read the old stuff. Nothing we read had been written in the last 30 years and it was wonderful. We rarely read any Americans (remember, they were boring!) and mostly read Frenchmen. Foucault was a cited daily. Edgar Morin was one of my favorite reads. Papa Freud was also very common. A lot of sociologists were also constantly read. Thinkers like Marx, Zygmunt Bauman, Josep Luis Sert, Antonio Gramsi, Max Weber, Tomas Ibanez, Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Thomas Khun, Georg Simmel, Paulo Freire, Ludwik Fleck, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Jaques Derrida… Those were the guys I met with at the library.

In my psychology classes, there was very little psychology but I learned something for which I am eternally grateful. I learned what the greatest minds of our time are thinking about these days. I learned what are the present philosophical issues in the world. But, most importantly, I learned who to think. I learned something that I think very few people know how to really do in the world. I learned who to question and how to argue and I inherited a vision of the world more complex and rich than the one taught to me by my parents and former teachers. All this doesn’t really exist in design school. I miss that.

What can design learn from psychology?

In a word, it’s all about perception.

“The color is not important in itself. What is vastly more important is the response to it, even to the point of color blindness”

In the world of design, we tend to view things in a relatively objective way. Certain color combinations are better than others. Certain layouts are better than others. Certain typefaces are better than other. In the real world, nobody has ever died because of the use of Comic Sans. At the end of the day, the foundations of graphic design don’t really matter that much in the real world. What really does matter is how people react and interact with design. The design is not important in itself but in the way in which people perceive it. That’s something designers tend to often forget. Design in a vacuum is quite worthless and unless design goes out in to the world and is let wild and loose, it doesn’t really have much value.

What can psychology learn from design?

In a word, it’s all about perception.

“As one travels, it is not unreasonable to expect the lack of valuable new content to be proportionately related to the amount of color one finds throughout the daily newspaper. The more color, the less solid news”

The field of psychology is full of interesting ideas. Unfortunately, they are only found on obscure and lengthy books and journal articles. Most of them are quite boring to read. Not because of the idea, but because of the communication of the idea. Rather than writing this wonderful ideas in a very simple and comprehensible way; psychology, philosophy and science in general tend to be very dry. Why invest more time in trying to communicate ideas effectively? Why not add a bit more color to the newspaper? The idea in these fields still tends to be that the less color, the more text, the less images, the more obscure… the better the idea is. The denser, the more important. Yet, for these ideas to be taken they need to be communicated effectively. Why not take the fascinating world of thoughts and give it the fascinatingly simple form of a poster?





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