Influence of color experience and color characteristic

Color memory of university students: influence of color experience and color characteristic

Carlisle Bynum

The ability to select a previously viewed color specimen from an array of specimens that differ in hue, value, or chroma varies among individuals, and may be related to one’s basic color discrimination ability or to prior experience with color. This study investigated short-term color memory of 40 college students, 20 of whom were interior design majors and 20 who had no previous color-related education or professional experience. Color memory in four hue categories was tested separately using sets of Munsell color chips that consisted of a target color and nine distractors that were closely related to, but visibly different from the target color. After viewing the target color for 5 seconds, followed by a delay of an additional 5 seconds, each student was presented a set of 10 color chips and asked to identify the target color. Results revealed that the most accurately remembered color was yellow, followed by purple, orange, and green. Students with no prior color training more accurately remembered the color purple than did design majors, while design majors were more accurate in remembering the color orange. Participants in the two groups reported the use of similar cues in remembering the target colors.


Among humans, there is a wide range of ability to distinguish color differences and to remember color. Uchikawa and Shinoda (1996) have indicated that the visual system has both the ability to discriminate small color differences and the ability to perceive different colors as the same, noting, for example, that the three distinct colors, blue-red, orange-red, and yellow-red, can all be described simply as “red”.

Color memory can be described as “successive color matching” a category of color matching in which time elapses between the presentation of a color stimulus and the attempt to match the remembered color (de Fez, Capilla, Luque, Perez-Carpinell, & del Pozo, 2001, Perez-Carpinell, Baldovi, de Fez, & Castro, 1998). One universal conclusion of color memory research over the past 100 years is that while some individuals seem to be able to retain a color in memory, others cannot. Early research also shows that color memory is not consistent across the visible spectrum. Noting that certain colors have inherent differences that make them more difficult to remember than others, Collins (1931) conducted experiments in which subjects were asked to reproduce a previously seen color, and found that particular wavelengths of green and red were hard for the subjects to reproduce and also difficult to recognize again. This finding was confirmed by Hamwi and Landis (1955), who also found that in addition to hue, ability to remember a color is also influenced by its lightness or darkness. Later, Nilson and Nelson (1981) found that the most accurately remembered colors were violets, green-blues, and yellow-oranges. However, more recent work (Jin & Shevell, 1996) demonstrated that long and medium wavelengths were remembered more accurately than shorter wavelengths.

The context in which a color is presented has also been shown to have an effect on the viewers’ ability to remember the color. In a study investigating the typicality of color to particular objects, Ratner and McCarthy (1990) concluded that for objects shown in colors in which they are typically seen, the colors were remembered more accurately than when atypical colors were used.

Other research has shown that visual images such as color stimuli are remembered more easily than words, such as color names. Allen (1990) proposed that proactive inhibition is involved in color memory. Proactive inhibition is said to occur when a new and different method of encoding, or remembering, results from a change in the material to be remembered. In an experiment on memory of ambiguous color, Allen (1990) concluded that color names are encoded only verbally, while colors are encoded both verbally and perceptually, noting that a change from remembering color names to remembering color results in a release from proactive inhibition, as evidenced by an improved ability to remember.

Other findings by Perez-Carpinell, et al. (1998) indicate that women remember color more easily and more accurately than men. Among ten colors studied, orange was the easiest color to remember, whereas yellow, light green, blue, and pink were the most difficult to remember overall. Comparing color memory by gender, men most easily remembered orange, dark blue, green, and red, while women showed better memory for orange, red, chamois, and violet. Furthermore, light colors were remembered as being lighter than they actually were, while dark colors were incorrectly remembered as being darker (Perez-Carpinell, et al., 1998).

Time between stimulus and recall was also found to have a significant effect on memory, with the accuracy of color memory diminishing rapidly as the elapsed time increased between intervals of zero, 15 s, 5 min, and 24 hr (Perez-Carpinell, et al., 1998). However, Nilson and Nelson (1981) found no significant difference for delays between 0.1 and 24.3 seconds. Using longer delays of 15 min, 24 hr, and 64 hr, Hamwi and Landis (1955) found no relationship between time delay and color memory.

Studies that addressed effects of subjects’ prior training or experience with color on their accuracy in color memory have shown contradictory results. Using 43 chips from the Farnsworth-Munsell color test, Burnham and Clark (1955) did not find prior color experience or training to be significant. However, earlier work (Collins, 1931) with a questionably small sample of only six subjects had shown that trained subjects had more accurate color memory.

The primary purpose of our study was to examine the effect of prior color training or professional experience on short-term color memory of college students. In effect, we examined differences between the ability of design majors (color-trained) and non-design majors (non-color-trained) to correctly recognize/identify colors on a retention test. Another purpose was to examine incorrectly remembered colors to determine whether there is a consistent direction of hue, value, or chroma shift between the target and the remembered color. A third objective was to explore and investigate whether students used word cues or visual cues in attempting to remember colors.


Color Stimuli

Munsell dimensions (hue, value, and chroma) were used to select colors for the study. Color chips in four hue categories (yellow, orange, green, and purple) were selected from the Munsell Book of Color (matte finish). Each set included a target color and nine distractor colors. The Munsell designations for the four target colors were 2.5Y 8/8, 7.5YR 7/8, 10G 6/6, and 5P 5/6. The Munsell locations of the distractor colors with respect to the target colors were the same for each of the four sets. In each set, five distractor chips were chosen from the same Munsell hue designation as the target chip, two distractors were chosen from the two immediately preceding hue pages and two from the two immediately following hue pages. Each distractor was within two Munsell hue, value, or chroma steps of the target color. This resulted in sets of distractors that were closely related to, but visibly different from the target color. The Munsell designations of the distractors for each target color are shown in Table 1. Each color chip measured 17 mm x 20 mm and was mounted on a 5 cm x 5 cm white card. The mounted chips were covered with transparent film to protect the specimen from deterioration due to excessive handling.


Forty female college students between 18 and 25 years of age were recruited from a public institution in the southeast region of the US. Twenty were interior design majors who had studied color either in a specific color course or in a design principle course. The remaining twenty had no previous color-related education or professional experience, and represented a wide range of academic majors other than design. The objective and test procedure were explained to each student prior to participation. Each student completed the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue test, and all were found to have normal color vision and at least average color discrimination ability.


The experiment was conducted under standard illuminant D65 in a Macbeth spectralight box. The subject was handed the target color chip and asked to look at it with the intent of remembering it. After 5 seconds, the target specimen was removed. Then, after focusing on a standard white paper card for 5 seconds, the subject was handed a stack of ten color chips which included the target chip and the nine distractors, randomly arranged, and was asked to recall and choose the target color. Finally, after identifying what was thought to be the correct target color, the subject was asked what method she may have used in trying to remember the test color, i.e., whether the subject tried to remember the color by assigning it a verbal description or by using associations with mental images of objects having the same color.


The results are summarized in the Tables. Yellow was the most accurately remembered color, with 29 of the 40 students accurately selecting the target. Next was purple, then orange (Munsell “yellowred”), and finally, the least accurately identified color was green, correctly chosen by only five participants. Considering design and non-design majors separately, yellow was the most accurately identified color and green was the least accurately identified color by both groups, but for the design majors, orange ranked second in number of correct matches, while purple was the second most accurately matched color for the non-design majors.

Table 2 summarizes the data for the color yellow. For the target color yellow, the distractors selected by the design majors differed from the target only in hue. Similar results were found for the nonmajors, except that one subject chose a distractor that differed from the target in value and chroma, but not in hue. For the orange target (see Table 3), all except two chosen distractors differed from the target only in hue. One design major selected a distractor which differed from the target only in chroma, and one non-design major selected a target which differed in both value and chroma.

For the green target (see Table 4), the majority of the distractors for both groups differed from the target in hue. The exceptions among the design majors were one whose choice differed from the target in value and chroma and one whose choice differed only in chroma. Among the nondesign majors, there were three exceptions whose selections differed from the target in both value and chroma. In the case of purple (see Table 5), the majority of the selected distractors also differed from the target in hue only. Exceptions were two design major students who selected a distractor that differed from the target in both value and chroma.

In response to the question of what cues were used to remember the color, most of the respondents stated that they used either words or visual associations with objects of the same color. Some of the students indicated that they used both types of cues. As shown in Table 6, design majors and non-majors’ choices were almost identical with respect to cue category primarily used, with both groups indicating greater use of visual cues. The maximum number of correct matches that were possible in the study was 160 (40 subjects x 4 colors). Of the 64 total correct matches that were made, the participants primarily used visual cues in 40 cases, while word cues were primarily used by 24.


The purpose of this study was to test color memory in four hue categories, including yellow, yellow-red (orange), green and purple, referencing color stimuli from the Munsell Book of Color. Confirming the findings of previous studies by Perez-Carpinell, et al. (1998) and Collins (1931) green was the least correctly remembered color for both groups. Contrary to the previous studies by Perez-Carpinell, et al. (1998), but confirming the findings of Collins (1931), yellow was the most correctly remembered color.

The learning (or practice) effect found by Collins ( 1931) and by Hamwi and Landis (1955), did not occur. On the contrary, most participants correctly identified the first color presented and tended to be less accurate for colors presented later. To further investigate this, future research should involve a larger number of participants with the order of presentation of colors fully randomized.

Furthermore, there was no strong difference between the design and non-design majors in overall ability to correctly retain colors in short-term memory. This observation confirms the findings of Burnham and Clark (1955), who concluded that immediate memory for a hue is not much affected by specific training in color.


Allen, C. K. (1990). Encoding of colors in short-term color memory. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 71,211-215.

Burnham, R. W., & Clark, J. R. (1955).A test of hue memory. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 39 (3), 164-172.

Collins, M. (1931). Some observations on immediate color memory. Journal of Psychology, 22, 344-351.

de Fez, M. D., Capilla, P., Luque, M. J., Perez-Carpinell, J., & del Pozo, J. C. (2001). Asymmetric color matching: Memory matching versus simultaneous matching. Color Research and Application, 26 (6), 458-468.

Hamwi, V., & Landis, C. (1955). Memory for color. Journal of Psychology, 39, 183-194.

Jin, E. W., & Shevell, S. K. (1996). Color memory and color constancy. Journal of the Optical Society of America, A (13), 1981-1991.

Nilson, T. H., & Nelson T. M. (1981). Delayed monochromatic hue matches indicate characteristics of visual memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 7, 141-150.

Perez-Carpinell, J., Baldovi, R., de Fez, M. D., & Castro, J. (1998). Color memory matching: Time effect and other factors. Color Research and Application, 23 (4), 234-247.

Ratner, C., & McCarthy, J. (1990). Ecologically relevant stimuli and color memory. Journal of General Psychology, 117 (4), 369-377.

Uchikawa, K., & Shinoda, H. (1996). Influence of basic color categories on color memory discrimination. Color Research and Application, 21 (6), 430-439.

Table 1

Target Colors and Distractors

Target Color Yellow Orange

2.5Y8/8 7.5YR7/8

Distractors 5Y8/8 (a) 5YR7/8 (a)

10YR8/8 (a) 10YR7/8 (a)

7.5Y8/8 (a) 2.5Y7/8 (a)

7.5YR8/8 (a) 2.5YR7/8 (a)

2.5Y8.5/6 (b) (c) 7.5YR6/6 (b) (c)

2.5Y8.5/10 (b) (c) 7.5YR8/6 (b) (c)

2.5Y7/6 (b) (c) 7.5YR8/10 (b) (c)

2.5Y7/10 (b) (c) 7.5YR6/10 (b) (c)

2.5Y8/12 (c) 7/5YR7/12 (c)

Target Color Green Purple

10G6/6 5P5/6

Distractors 5BG6/6 (a) 2.5PB5/6 (a)

2.5BG6/6 (a) 7.5P5/6 (a)

7.5G6/6 (a) 10P5/6 (a)

5G6/6 (a) 10PB5/6 (a)

10G7/4 (b) (c) 5P6/8 (b) (c)

10G7/8 (b) (c) 5P6/4 (b) (c)

10G5/4 (b) (c) 5P4/4 (b) (c)

10G5/8 (b) (c) 5P4/8 (b) (c)

10G6/10 (c) 5P5/10 (c)

(a) Hue differs from target

(b) Value differs from target

(c) Chroma differs from target

Table 2

Yellow Color Match Selections by Group

Color Design Majors Non Majors Total

TARGET – 2.5Y8/8 15 14 29

5Y8/8 4 1 5

10YR8/8 1 4 5

7.5Y8/8 0 0 0

7.5YR8/8 0 0 0

2.5Y8.5/6 0 1 1

2.5Y8.5/10 0 0 0

2.5Y7/6 0 0 0

2.5Y7/10 0 0 0

2.5Y8/12 0 0 0

Table 3

Orange Color Match Selections by Group

Color Design Majors Non-majors Total

TARGET – 7.5YR7/8 8 6 14

5YR7/8 8 11 19

10YR7/8 2 1 3

2.5Y7/8 1 0 1

2.5YR7/8 0 1 1

7.5YR6/6 0 1 1

7.5YR8/6 0 0 0

7.5YR8/10 0 0 0

7.5YR6/10 0 0 0

7.5YR7/12 1 0 1

Table 4

Green Color Match Selections by Group

Color Design Majors Non-majors Total

TARGET – 10G6/6 4 1 5

5BG6/6 7 9 16

2.5BG6/6 4 6 10

7.5G6/6 3 1 4

5G6/6 0 0 0

10G7/4 0 1 1

10G7/8 1 0 1

10G5/4 0 1 1

10G5/8 0 1 1

10G6/10 1 0 1

Table 5

Purple Color Match Selections by Group

Color Design Majors Non-majors Total

TARGET – 5P5/6 6 10 16

2.5PB5/6 6 6 12

7.5P5/6 4 1 5

10P5/6 2 3 5

10PB5/6 0 0 0

5P6/8 2 0 2

5P6/4 0 0 0

5P4/4 0 0 0

5P4/8 0 0 0

5P5/10 0 0 0

Table 6

Correct Color Selections by Memory Cue Types and Group

Correct Selections

Primary Total

Memory Academic Number of

Cue Used Major Subjects Yellow Orange Green Purple

Words Design 8 7 2 2 1

Non-Design 7 6 2 1 3

Visual Design 12 8 6 2 5

Non-Design 13 8 4 0 7


Ann Warsham Interiors, Inc., Atlanta, Georgia


Professor of Textiles and Color Science

The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia


Assistant Professor of Furnishings and Interiors

The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

COPYRIGHT 2006 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning