Pyramid Scheme

 Pyramid Scheme

We experience color on a number of different levels, and Frank H. Mahnke of the International Association of Colour Consultants/Designers has developed the ultimate pyramid scheme to organize them.  Called the “Color Experience Pyramid“, the schemata looks like a broad-based triangle, and is comprised of six levels, starting at the wide bottom with our biological responses to a color stimulus, and ending at its pointed tip, with our personal relationship to  color.  In other words, the Pyramid levels move from the general to the specific.

At the base of the Pyramid, and perhaps at the base of our psyches, we have our biological reactions to a color stimulus. These reactions are not controllable.  They may be considered part of our “biological, or evolutionary heritage”, having to do with survival.  Color, a source of information and communication, is also a signal.  During mating season, the males of certain bird species develop large red throat pouches, which serve as a warning or threat signal to other males, as well an attraction signal to the females.  We can find a parallel to this in our response to red as both a danger, and erotic symbol. Wow. This IS complex.

Moving up the Pyramid, we next reach the level of the collective unconscious, a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.  The contents of the collective unconscious have never been conscious to us during our lifetimes.  This level of experience has to do with archetypes, or the original, ” universally understood symbols or terms or patterns of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated.”.   These might be understood also as “primordial“, or first images, and do not emerge  from our personal histories, experiences, or intellect.  In other words, these responses, or experiences of color are also not conscious, or controllable.  Don’t we have any control over this stuff at all?

Well, turns out, we do. The next level up is our experience of conscious symbolism and associations with color. Yay! We are finally conscious!  Well, these responses to color could be seen as learned, and some may be seen as universal…blue=water|sky,, green = nature, yellow = sun.  All we need to do is look around  us, and we can see why.  So, although these responses are conscious, they may not be controllable, as some color association  may be deeply ingrained in our sensory life experinece, and reinforced by repetition of those experiences. .  However, these associations and symbols have a profound importance and effect upon us, as they may effect what we buy, eat, wear, value, and drive!


How does the role of culture, even specific regions, affect our experinece of color? Cultural influences and mannerisms comprises the  fourth level up the Color Experience Pyramid.   Although universal responses are surprisingly consistent, it is fascinating to look at the effect of our specific culture, group or tribe on our color responses,  experiences, choices and usage.  The colors of powerful symbols such as flags (and peace signs!) may play into this, as well as the hues representing specific holidays, or even religions. Perhaps the colors of our terrains, such as black sands, and red rocks play into this as well.  First there was the environment, and then there were the people, so…

The influence of trends, fashion and styles is the next level up the Pyramid. Now we get to the fun stuff, right?   Although trends, and such, are seen as temporary, and may well be (otherwise, why would they be called trends?!), these influences do effect our color experinece. These color trends, fashions or styles may have little or nothing to do with supportive color design, and certainly should not be applied to any and every environment, product, object, graphic or work of art across the board. The interesting thing to me about the trend phenomena is, how and why do they arise?  Are they a response to something in the culture? The economy? The weather? Are they a part of human evolution?  Do tell!

Finally, we get to the apex of the triangle…aka, Pyramid.  What is our personal relationship to color,  and how is it influenced by the five levels below?  Apparently our personal “color experience” is indeed made up of the interrelatedness of all of the Pyramid levels, conscious and unconscious. Although our color preferences can be seen as an expression of who we are, they can also change as we change and move through different stages of our lives.  As color is a function of light, it is a form of energy, and thus affects our total being,  physically, emotionally, psychologically, aesthetically. Thus our color experience encompasses all levels of our lives.

  As we develop, transform and transcend, our color preferences will express those changes, and just perhaps, become barometer of our  growth, and a reflection of our inner striving, struggles, and radiance.  Viva la Coleur!

What levels of the Color Experience Pyramid can YOU relate to? 

If you are so moved, please share them with us here.  We love to hear from You.

Remember, we are all experiencing this colorFULL thing called Life, together.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Debra,

    I see you took good notes in IACCNA color school. Hee hee. So did I : http://colourific.blogspot.com/2008/04/why-do-you-like-red-but-i-like-green.html
    You’ve added some great photos that really illustrate this complex concept.
    Thanks, Debra for your educational post.

  2. EB! It is almost magical how we have posted on some of the same COMPLEX color subjects! I thank you for your kind reader and comment-ship of my posts, and so look forward to meeting you in person the next time we are in the Seattle area. Merci!

    • and ditto for me the next time I come to SF.

  3. […] described in the posts, “Pyramid Scheme“  and “The Embodiment of Color”, we experience color on a number of different […]


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