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Black or White

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Recently I heard Professor William Lidwell from the University of Houston lecture on the meaning of colors. His area of study is in the application of color to design and advertisement. Of particular interest is his discussion of black and white, the most elemental colors.  

He said, “the words for black and white exist across all cultures and languages, unlike other colors. And that the evolution of color terms, the words for black and white, are the most ancient, the most elemental. Also, black and white determines the lightness and darkness of other colors. Thus, as colors lighten, they take on more meanings of white, and conversely, as colors darken, they take on meanings of black. Generally, it is the lightness and darkness of colors that carry the stronger meaning, the emotional impact. Therefore, learning the meaning of black and white, darkness and lightness, we learn the meaning of all colors.”

So how does the meaning of black and white make for great spaces?

Lidwell explains that our perception of black and white is much more than social conditioning, that of black being evil and white being noble. This may account for our white civic buildings; capitol buildings and of course, the White House and dungeons and jails, black. However, exploring further black and white sets the high status of products; such as, the Chanel “little black,” dress or the Apple iPad. Perhaps it is because these colors are the most elemental, simplistic and universal, says Professor Lidwell.

It is no coincidence that many architects design in only black and white - Richard Meir’s Getty museum, Gropius’s Bauhaus, le Corbusier’s many houses, and so on. It has been shown that in design black and white increases the perceived value of the object. This may be because that as we age we appreciate the nuances of darker and lighter shades; so the older more sophisticated users of these places dictate the design. Also our primal instinct of the durability of black and white gives timelessness to the design. Great space always has permanence about it, despite the style. It needs to resonate across cultures and ages. It is obvious in many ways. It is black or white.

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