Why Some Colors Are More Visible: The Evolutionary and Cultural Forces Driving Our Eyes

Man climbing a caged ladder while donning ANSI/ISEA 107-2020 High-Visibility Safety Apparel.

The world stuffed with colors, vibrant and omnipresent, occupying living forms, inanimate objects, and other sorts of matter reflecting varying wavelengths of the color spectrum. However, as the cones in our eyes gather the information reflected off the surface of objects, some colors we process are more desirable or striking than others. The basis for this is both biological and cultural, a driving force of visibility for which products, signs, and other objects are shaped. The inconspicuous nature of certain colors makes them prime for use in safety equipment, such as high-visibility apparel.

The Colors Animals See

Color is not inherent in objects, but it is something that the viewer perceives. The ability to process certain colors is dependent on color sensitive cone cells found in the retina of the eye, through which information is gathered and then transmitted to the brain for comprehension. For example, it is alleged often that dogs can only see in black in white; however, dogs have only two cone cells, yellow and blue, and with a dichromatic color perception, Canis familiaris cannot distinguish green, yellow, or red.

Alternatively, some birds, fishes, and other mammals perceive the full color spectrum and are able to view the world with chromatic intricacies inaccessible to other species. Similarly, butterflies, which are quite luminescent themselves, are considered to have the widest visual range of any form of wildlife, with some being sensitive to UV, violet, blue, green, and red wavelength peaks. This characteristic can be correlated with identifying pollinating flowers, as well as other common butterfly tasks.

In fact, animals simply do not just possess the ability to see certain colors; like every other attribute, seeing color is adapted in response to a being’s interaction with its environment. This is true for humans, who are trichromatic, with cones sensitive to red, green, and blue. The origin of this eye composition, however, originated long before the onset of the human species.

The Colors Humans See (Trichromacy)

A prevailing theory asserts that trichromacy developed within our primate ancestors as a means to identify yellow ripe fruit amidst a green forest background. This adaptation was acquired far back enough for the attribute to be shared among Old World monkeys, as well as other primates. Therefore, today, colors similar to yellow may be more striking than others, as they were instinctually appealing enough to attract the archaic primates that viewed them incipiently.

However, color preferences go far beyond the instinctual and primordial, as culture and psychological forces often determine what is visually appealing to an individual. Simply put, color preferences are influenced by what one has been exposed to throughout his or her entire life.

For example, many of us may become appalled or even disgusted upon seeing brown tomato juice, a tone that is basically the liquid’s natural state, as the red tomato color fades with time after canning and is often reacquired from artificial additives. However, if you had never seen anything but brown tomato juice, you may not be able to stomach the red alternative.

Ultimately, the capability to see colors to which our eyes are instantly attracted is derived from evolutionary acquisition, but the means for these colors to standout is vastly shaped by cultural roots. However, there are some constants. For example, product safety signs, which were standardized through ANSI Z535 to effectively and near-universally communicate hazards, often make use of colors such as yellow and red to draw an individual’s eyes toward an important message.

High Visibility Safety Apparel (HVSA)

Similarly, high-visibility safety apparel—personal protective safety clothing intended to provide conspicuity during both daytime, nighttime, and other low-light condition usage—finds significant enhancement when certain colors are incorporated. For this type of apparel, conspicuity benefits from high contrast between the garment and the ambient background against which it is seen.

ANSI/ISEA 107-2020: American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Accessories addresses high-visibility safety apparel, providing performance guidelines for conspicuous materials and specifying background, retroreflective and combined-performance materials, colors and placement of materials for garments, and supplemental and accessory items used to enhance the visibility and safety of workers.

The ANSI/ISEA 107-2020 standard heavily features fluorescent material, which instantaneously emits optical radiation within the visible range at wavelengths longer than absorbed. In a way, when one reacts upon seeing these colors worn, similarities exist to the ancient primates who once foraged for brightly colored fruits under the forest canopy.

You can learn all about ANSI/ISEA 107-2020: High-Visibility Safety Apparel in our post on the standard.

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