Seeing The Light

This great lecture by Beau Lotto on light and colour got me thinking…



Colour is important in telling us about our environment and the things in it.

Colour is a function of the wave length of the illumination, the transmittance of the space between our eye and the object and the reflectance of the object. Changing any one of these dimensions changes the colour we perceive.

Our brains adapt to changes in these dimensions so that we can continue to perceive objects as the quality of light changes, but this adaptation is not instantaneous.

This being the case let’s consider a retail environment.

Generally we enter a store from the outside world where the quality of light is quite different from that inside. It takes our brains perhaps a few seconds to adapt to this and in the meantime we have crossed the threshold and walked several paces through what’s often referred to as the compression zone. Here we might find various signs aimed at communicating messages to us and perhaps products on a deal. All of these are objects with associated colour. But at this point our brains haven’t fully adapted to the new lighting conditions – We are still working in natural light mode, so the signs and products may not appear to the shopper as the retailer intends when he’s designing the communications and arranging the products on display. They may not be as vivid or as impactful for example.

Let’s think about another situation. Assume we are in a clothing store and the lighting is low and moody, perhaps at the red end of the spectrum. How does this make the colour of a garment on the rail appear? Do shoppers buy a garment from the store under the illusion it is one colour only to get it home and find it is different? Have you noticed your shoppers walking garments to the window to see what they are like under natural light?

Now let’s imagine two sections to our store, day wear and evening wear. Should we merchandise these under different lighting conditions? After all they will be worn under different lighting conditions so surely we should be showing the garments off under conditions which most closely reflect those under which they will be worn if we are to aid the shopper in making a choice that they will be ultimately satisfied with.

Let’s take it further still. Clothing ranges run in seasons. In the late summer we are merchandising autumn wear and in the spring we are selling summer wear. Should we alter the quality of lighting in the store by season to reflect the quality of light under which the garments will be worn? Summer range Summer lighting, Autumn range Autumn lighting?

So here’s a thought. Don’t only think of the object you intend to present to the shopper in isolation or even in the context of the space it occupies, but also in the context of the lighting conditions under which it will be perceived.

But beyond this not everyone perceives colour in the same way!

Personally I am colour blind. There are lots of different types of colour blindness and mine is red/green. What that means is that I have difficulty distinguishing between red and green objects of certain hues and in certain situations, such as if the lighting is low or transmittance is poor.

In particular this causes me all sorts of problems when I go to buy clothes. Generally, not wanting to look like a kids TV presenter I tend to prefer, as many of us do, to wear fairly muted shades. But this makes it far harder for me to judge a colour. Often I’ve bought a shirt say, thinking it is green only to find later that my partner tells me it is brown. I’ll put on some trousers and a shirt thinking it a good combo only to be told that they clash horribly. This is a real cause of frustration for me personally and often results in the need to take my normal seeing partner with me when I go shopping.


This is not me!
This is not me!


But I am not unique! Colour blindness of one form or another affects approximately 8% of men and 0.4% of women, so chances are in the UK alone there are around 2.4 million men and 125 thousand women with the same problem I have.

Granted, lighting store environments more adequately will help ease our frustrations to an extent, but is it not also time for fashion retailers to print the colour of garments in words onto the label (this is more miss than hit at the moment – sometimes you find it but not often), provide us with charts to say what colour goes with what other colour and even merchandise outfits in complementary colours together?




Little things like this would make all the difference to the shopping experience and may well lead to larger basket sizes and repeat purchasing for those retailers forward thinking enough to make the effort.


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