What colour is your culture?

Sitting on the London Underground the other day was a gloomy experience for me. Everyone on the platform and in my very crowded carriage was wearing a black coat or jacket (including me). These, paired with either black trousers or dark denim resulted in my buying bright red hat and bag in Kings Cross Station: anything to ward off the gloom and add a splash of colour to the uniform darkness.

Similarly a work colleague arrived and we started the usual 'commute journey' tale. Hers was different from the normal 'delayed on the Northern Line'. She said she'd seen a person in her carriage in a bright yellow coat. She had been instantly cheered by that single splash of colour in the sea of black.

At the Big Bang Data exhibition, I saw the visualization Colours in Cultures. It's a wonderful expression of the characteristics that colours are associated with in 10 broad-banded cultures (Western/American, African, etc). In only two of the ten – Western/American and Japanese – is black associated with anything other than evil, death, bad-luck, anger, unhappiness, penance and mourning. In those two cultures it is a colour of style albeit paradoxically also associated with death, mourning, etc. Is England a drab and gloomy culture that reflects in the black clothing? (There was a British sitcom called The Glums). Or is everyone thinking they look stylish in their black uniform?

Remembering these experiences led me to thinking about colour in organisations. What are the cultural colours of your organisation? How do they reflect in the colours people wear, the choices of paint and furnishings, the logo colours, and so on. Does colour choice have an impact on what people do and their productivity levels?

Think of the way people responded to Yahoo's purple logo. It was panned. 'Purple is a distinctive, vivid, and fun color; it's also chronically under-represented in the depressingly blue palette of Internet branding (look at Facebook, Twitter, and, to a lesser extent, Google). But for thousands of years, we've been culturally associating purple with wealthy, out-of-touch dynasties'.

Are the people in Yahoo out of touch? Maybe, if the stories circulating about its being bought are anything to go by. Would a different colour logo have influenced its history differently? (Both Twitter and Facebook have blue and clearly Google is hedging its bets). Do the colours of the logos reflect or inspire the cultural colours of the organisation?

We know that people are affected by colour and have strong preferences when making personal choices related to it. The choices 'are deeply rooted emotional responses that seem to lack any rational basis, yet the powerful influence of color rules our choices in everything from the food we eat and the clothes we wear to the cars we buy'.

Colour is said to be important in healing therapies and choices of hospital decor although a review of the literature makes the point that 'most color guidelines for healthcare design are nothing more than affective value judgments whose direct applicability to the Architecture and interior design of healthcare settings seems oddly inconclusive and nonspecific … Analysis of color in any environment means respecting other kinds of processing forces such as culture, time, and location.'

Colour in office design is also subject to pronouncements. Is it really true that 'people are more likely to lose their temper in yellow rooms, which might make it a bad choice for conference rooms'? Nancy Kwallek, whose research informs this 2015 Fast Company piece, as far as I can tell last published in 2007. She may be right and her findings may still hold although in a 2012 piece she apparently says there's no clear answer to what colour works best. Again it depends on individual experiences and preferences.

Do you associate your organisation with a colour either literally or metaphorically? What colour would you like the culture of your organisation to be – do you think it would make a difference? Let me know.

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