Whats your wavelength?
Cynthia Lawson, Andrew Zornoza
Color and light is the focus of study in many disciplines, such as physiology, psychology,
philosophy, synesthesia and art. It will be the focus of my thesis research over the next 8 months.
I am learning about how people relate to color because i want to find out how people see the
world the way they do. In doing this research my goal is to create digital learning environments
that teach how color and light influence ones perception of sound, touch, smell and sight. By
recognizing how our five senses interpret color to perceive the world, we can recognize patterns
in the thoughts, actions and decisions we make on a daily basis. Recognizing those patterns leads
to new perceptions of the world around us, which can alter thinking and change actions. Color
can cause physical discomfort or put our minds at ease. It is a powerful form of communication
on a local and global scale. Ethnicity, astrology, politics, ecology, military, education, health,
food, consumerism and music are just a few areas that are influenced by color.
In 2003 the United Nations reported that food rations distributed in Iraq by U.S. - led
coalition forces were “wrapped in the same yellow packaging as deadly so-called bomblets being
airdropped by the coalition” (CNN.com). This simple oversight in color usage put the lives of
hundreds of civilians in danger of mistaking food rations for explosives.
Color and the environment are also very closely related. Climate change is transforming
the colors of the earth. One of the largest ice caps in the world, on Mount Kilimanjaro is melting
causing the landscape to change from a large white area to dark brown and green one. Warmer
oceans and water sedimentation are causing coral reef bleaching, which is draining the ocean
floor of its color.
Symbols and signs we follow on a daily basis are color coded and are embedded into our
thinking. The U.S.A’s terror alert system is a good example. Red is the highest level warning
and green is the least. The designation of certain colors to “levels” of danger is an interesting
parallel, not to mention what colors were chosen and why.
Healthiness is commonly associated to color. Blue or green frequently represents illness
when pink or red-orange represents wellness. The color of your nails, eyes, skin and teeth is a
reliable sign of the quality of your health. For example, the discoloration in the peachy /off white
color of the nail can be a sign of malnutrition or disease.
All of these examples are a few ways color influences the way humans interact with the
world. I am interested in using the theory and research that exists about human perception of
color as a foundation to create an interactive learning environment. I would like to create a
series of digital and physical instillations that require people to use their five senses to perceive
color. These interactive environments would be installed in a mobile gallery where users learn
about the way they react to color and why they react the way they do. People will become aware
of simple color and light concepts while they make discoveries about how they perceive the
world around them . By presenting these concepts to a mass audience I intend to introduce the
idea that relating to color is a completely personal experience. It is interpreted differently by
everyone and the context in which color is seen is important to each interpretation.
I plan to track the results of how the participants interact with each interface. Compiling
the data in a visual way is an important part of the project. Whether it is immediately after the
interaction takes place or much later I think showing a comparison of the results will be
interesting. Providing some kind of immediate visualization of the results will give the user
immediate feedback. This might take the form of a data sheet or “color profile”, printed out at
the end of the experience, where the user’s touch, taste, hearing and sight are measured in color.
Alternatively it might take the form of large data charts printed as posters where the results are
Objects in the instillation will be a mix of computer screens, musical instruments,
photographs, games, posters, food and lights. In order to demonstrate the core mechanics and
rules of color, all of the objects will be in a controlled setting. Some examples might be a
windowless room, a sound proof room, a blindfolded taste test or a florescent lit corridor. The
reason being that color is very relative to the light and other colors that surround it so there needs
to be a constant setting in order for results of each user to be compared.
I would like the entire experience to be housed in a mobile gallery so it can be
transported to different areas of NYC. Users will vary in age, culture and location. It will be a
collective space for discussion and documentation of the way people see color . Each user gets
an individual experience that is also part of a larger shared experience. I believe this will be an
interesting way for people to start a conversation about their differences and similarities. “Parts
and labor” is a mobile gallery housed in a mobile truck with glass walls. I am interested in
showing this project in this context or finding a different one like it.
The following ideas are prototypes that I plan to test in the next few weeks. They range
from physical computing projects to simple musical instruments.
1. Color tracking: A camera outside the gallery tracks motion based on color. If it is set to red, it
will track everyone who walks by wearing red. The tracking returns a visual image on a TV or
projection inside the gallery. While it documents how many people per hour/day are wearing
a certain color, it also becomes an interesting visual and/or data record.
Camera tracks motion of certain colors outside the truck
Projection inside of truck tracks motion of what the camera picks up
2. Color Frequency: Users will play the notes one at a time on a xylophone or keyboard. They
will have to choose a color that they feel closely corresponds to each note. Each note has an
actual equivalent in sound based on wavelength and frequency. The users choose their own
equivalent and can compare the actual equivalent afterward.
Color Frequency test.
The user places a
color on whatever
note they feel is
appropiate. There is
no right answer.
Results will be
mapped and compared
to see if there are any patterns
and if the wavelength and frequency
match up in any cases.
3. Taste the rainbow: Five cups conceal an assortment of flavored drinks. Each user tastes each
one and chooses what color the drink “tastes” most similar to. Each drink will be a distinct
flavor (sour, sweet, salty, tangy, bitter). The color chosen by the user that matches each drink
is based on personal interpretation. This creates a relationship between color and how it
Taste the Rainbow.
Each cup holds a
different flavor (salty,
sweet, sour, tangy, etc.)
User tries each one
and chooses a corresponding
color they feel the flavor
matches with. There is no
right answer. This will
test how people
identify taste with
4. Color Profile: The results of the user’s tests are compiled into a data form both as an
individual and in a larger group. They can see how their results compares to a community of
people, each of which have a different way of seeing the world.
Personal color Frequencey.
Skin tone is matched with a pigment. The person can see what the wavelength of their skin tone is
(number under each face). The wavelength of their skin tone will be calculated into a sound frequency,
which amounts to a note on the chromatic scale.
5.Reflection: Each wall of a four sided room will be painted with different color paint. There
are two small, lightweight blocks in the middle of the room with four sides, each one a
different color. The paint is slightly shiny so it reflects a little light. Users can turn, flip or
move the blocks anyway they choose, in any area that they choose. As the color sides on the
smaller blocks reflect light onto the walls of the room the color changes in appearance. The
light source in the room is controlled so there are no windows.
Room with reflective surfaces.
Each wall is painted a different
color. The blocks in the center
have a different color on each
side. People can flip. slide and
turn the blocks to see how the
colored surfaces are effected
when placed next to other
surfaces in the room.
6. Color Balance: One photograph of each user will be taken as they enter the gallery. The
photo will duplicated several times but will be different each time. The skin tone will be slightly
altered to be darker or lighter, more red or more yellow in each picture. The user will pick which
photograph they think is the original, un-altered one. This will start a conversation about skin
tone and racial stereotypes and will also reveal what our perceptions are of the way we look.
Testing for these prototypes has not taken place. I am in the process of researching the
best way to conduct tests such as these. Psychological tests and how they are conducted are what
I am referencing in designing these prototypes. I am also in the process of developing a
consistent way to “measure” the results so i can draw conclusions from them. Each prototype
has it’s own particular issues. For example, in order to conduct the test on “color frequency” I
need to do more research on similarities between wavelengths of color and wavelengths of sound
to be sure I can definitely compare them. Once I have more of a foundation I will start the user
Previous explorations in my own work include a wide variety of areas like cell phone
performance art, fashion technology, urban tours, instillation and information design. My
motivation in all of these past projects comes from a desire to do create work with an interactive
quality to them, where the user can personalize an experience based on tools I provide. Here are
some examples of my prior work starting with most recent:
1. Pinky at After the Jump Fest, Littlefield Performance Space. Brooklyn, NY. August 2009: An
instillation designed for user interactions. People can climb to the upper level and look out of
two viewing holes to get an “elephants perspective”. A projector underneath the elephant
plays “pink elephants on parade” from the movie Fantasia.
2. Aurora Australis Box, May 2009: An interactive box that explains the scientific phenomenon
behind “Aurora Australis” . Numbers guide the user to unfold the box step by step to reveal
graphics and text describing the reasons this phenomenon takes place. Card games and toys
are included. http://juliavallera.com/AABox.html
3. NYC Waterbody, March 2009: An informational booklet about the NYC water supply. Using
the data from the annual NY water report, I made an interactive tool to show people the same
information in the report, but in a more interesting way. It is intended to be mailed with the
actual report. http://juliavallera.com/nywaterbody.html
4. Phototransirion gloves, November 2008: Light and temperature sensitive gloves. Designed
for bike riding. At night the LED’s turn on automatically. A temperature sensor built into the
glove displays what temperature it is on an LCD screen built into the glove. Battery powered.
5. TourIna Box, August 2008: TourIna Box is a multimedia, interactive tool used to map a series
of destinations that narrate a personal experience. Packaged in a box the personalized experience
is easily passed on through mail or in person. What the user chooses to map and whom they
choose to share it with is entirely subjective. As a blank canvas, TourIna Box offers an insight to
places that might never be shared otherwise. http://tourina-box.com/
6. Text Text Dance, May 2008:This is a dance party where people are dancing according to
instructions they receive on there cell phones. With the use of SMS/Texting capabilities I send
text messages to groups of people on the dance floor over a period of time. The people I text
perform the instruction sent to their phone the moment they receive it. This happens in a public
venue so those participating will be scattered among non participants.
7. Dear Diary, November 2007 : This is a series of shirts that have mobility 2D barcodes on
them. They are readable by mobile phones. Someone can use his or her phone to scan the
barcode on the shirt. The scan will translate the barcode to reveal the profile of the person
wearing the shirt. You can see the persons age, name, interests, or whatever they chose as their
In choosing color and light at as my thesis concept I considered the following suggestion
from The Craft of Research. “A topic is an interest specific enough to support research that one
might plausibly report on in a book or article that helps others to advance their thinking and
understanding” (Booth, 36) This lead me to think about learning environments and topics I might
be able to expand on in an educational way. Another good suggestion from the same book says,
“the starting point of good research is always what you do not know or understand but feel you
must” (Booth, 39). I have been teaching color theory for three years, but feel there is a lot
missing from the way it is taught in an “art school” context. Exploring the way people
experience color with their five senses might open new ways to demonstrate how color connects
people to their surroundings.
In “From a narrowed topic to questions”, which is another chapter from The Craft of
Research by Wayne Booth, suggests a series of questions to help guide the research process.
There is a personal element between the participants and the research. He suggests asking “how
do the participants relate to the place” and “what use have the participants made of the story?”
He goes on to discuss the “value of the topics uses and parts”, which is an approach I find very
applicable to the way I would like to proceed with this project. Creating a “color story” of the
users experience will allow them to relate to the experience more personally. Making the
experience a rememberable will make it more valuable so it is important that each part has a
learning component to it.
There are numerous scientists, philosophers, physicists and artists that have set reliable
precedents in the field of color relativity. All of them were and still are searching for answers
about light and color. In a letter to Wilhelm von Humbolt (philospher) in 1798, Johann Wolfgang
von Goethe (philosopher and scientist) explained that by embarking on his book, History of the
Theory of Colours he had also hoped to create a "History of the Human Spirit in
Miniature" (Virtual Color Museum). For as long as color and light have been studied it has been
applied to a larger concepts of religion, astrology, mysticism and science. Broadening my
understanding of how different populations of people today see the world through color will help
me learn new ways of experiencing color and light so I can develop better ways to teach it.
I am working with the color theory and graphic design coordinator, Thomas Bosket, who
teaches in the Arts, Media and Technology school at Parsons. He will be referring me to
important resources as I proceed with my research. I will be in contact with psychologists and
researchers that he recommends along with ones that I find on my own. With his guidance I
hope to develop reliable and fun interfaces where users can explore color.
Contextualization of color and light in relation to design, technology, history, society,
culture, politics, psychology and philosophy is extensive. Much research has been done in
relation to each category. Here is a visual map of some examples.
DESIGN TECHNOLOGY SOCIAL CULTURAL
Gril Trend Forcasting
Composition TV Screens
Space Color Processing
Form Digital images
COLOR AND LIGHT
POLITICAL HISTORICAL PSYCHOLOGICAL PHILOSOPHICAL
Socialism Van Gogh Anger Astrology
Republican Johanes Itten Calm Nature
Democrat Aristotle Fear Perception
Da Vinci Excitement
Further explorations will lead to more extensive analysis of how the interactive tools I am
creating can be fully used to benefit communities that use them. This project provides an
opportunity to reach a large audience in a positive way. Communicating the material in a simple
and effective way is very important to the success of this project. I hope that it can grow and
travel to more cities so communities in different geographical areas can compare results with one
another to learn about their cultural similarities and differences. I would like the results to be
published online or in print so people can read about them and learn from them without having to
experience it first hand.
Most importantly I hope to create a reliable system to use as a foundation in expanding
on further learning environments I create in the future. Bill Clinton discussed the importance of
systems in a talk he gave on developing health care in Rawanda at the TED conference. He
stated “It is not enough to create just one, you have to create a system... develop a model that can
later be applied in other parts of the world...we have to build systems.........in a world without
systems everything becomes a gorilla struggle and the predictability is not there and it becomes
impossible to develop health care, save lives or educate kids” (Bill Clinton, TED).
1. Luscher Color Diagnostics. “Luscher Color Diangnostics: The Lscher-Color-Diagnostic
measures a person's psycho-physical state, his or her ability to withstand stress, to perform,
and to communicate.” http://www.colourtest.ue-foundation.org/kolory/kolor-index2.php
(accessed August 21, 2009).
2. Lotto Lab Studio. “ Lotto Lab: Our aim is to explore and explain how and why we see what
we do” http://www.lottolab.org/
3. Sap Design Guild. “Optical Illusions: Phenomena of Contrast.” http://
August 17, 2009)
4. Virtual Color Museum. “ Colour order systems in art and science.” http://
www.colorsystem.com/index.htm (accessed August 30)
5. CNN.com “U.N.: Iraqi Children may confuse rations, bomblets.” http://www.cnn.com/2003/
WORLD/meast/04/02/sprj.irq.aid.bomblets/index.html?iref=newssearch (accessed August 30,
6. TED.com “Bill Clinton on rebuilding Rawanda”. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/
bill_clinton_on_rebuilding_rwanda.html (accessed July 29 2009)
1. Angier, Natalie. “ How Do We See Red? Count the Ways” New York Times, February 6, 2007,
2. Konigsberg, Eric. “Made in the Shade” New Yorker, January 22, 2007.
1. Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Willliams. The Craft of Research.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
2. Laurel, Brenda. Design Research Methods and Perspectives. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT
3. De Waal, Frans. Our Inner Ape. NY: Riverhead Group, 2005
4. Banks, Adam, Tom Fraser. Designer’s Color Manual. Chronicle Books LLC, USA 2004
1. The Museum of Modern Art. “Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today. NYC. 2008
2. The Museum of Natural History. “Hall of Human Origins”. NYC. 2009
3. 1889 Gallery. “Re/Build: A Collaborative Design Exhibition”. Brooklyn, NY. 2009
4. P.S.1 MoMA. “Leandro Erlich: Swimming Pool.” Queens, NY. 2009