Consumption Colours

Reading time: 2:30min According to Marx, consumption is an inevitable necessity in our life. Such are consumption colours.

In cognitive colour theory, we distinguish colours into two colour categories. The first category is colours that we don’t think about. The second category is colours that attract our attention, whether we want them to or not.

Borders between signal colours and consumption colours can be weak but the violet in this example draws still our attention most. Photography: Sara Winter, Getty Images Graphics: Hans von Sonntag

The first categories I call consumption colours. They are consumed by us without further thought and greater feelings. Karl Marx describes consumption as a hamster wheel of everyday life: As on the first day of his appearance on the earth’s stage, man must still consume every day before and while he produces. For Marx, consumption includes the vital necessity of the same, for in his time consumption was not an option for the vast majority of people, but a question of life or death. In today’s affluent society, consumption as a provision for life and limb additionally becomes a provision for the psyche with rewards and addictive potential, which can end in shopping addiction. But despite all the excesses, consumption today still shows the routine of everyday life.

Waldsterben in Germany. The green colour is badly missing. When the green is back (won’t happen there), we take it for granted again. Photography: unknown

What we have a lot of, we only appreciate it when it is lacking. Thus, in times of climate change, the red-brown withered spruces and firs are bitterly conspicuous. The colour green, therefore, draws greater significance for the attentive observer in this context than it did a few years ago when the spruces and firs still received sufficient water. We feel similar about white, which used to cover our world with snow in winter, and now has to be consumed at great expense in the form of environmentally damaging, questionable skiing holidays — if you can afford it. After weeks of rain, we appreciate a blue spell, finally breaking for a few hours. Then it leaves the stage of our attention as a given and, like the bread roll at the breakfast table, again becomes a consumer product of everyday life.

The signal sunset would be nothing without the arbitrary blue sky Photography: unknown

Consumption colours are therefore not unimportant. On the contrary, they play a vital role, are not passive or background. But their appreciation is lost in everyday life, like toothpaste and rolls. In scarcity, however, their importance becomes painfully clear to us, and they experience the deserved appreciation in absence until they are finally available again.

A typical consumption colour in Western culture is blue, as the eye in everyday life consumes blue without further discussion in the sky or clothing. Red, on the other hand, is different. For many people, it is THE signal colour, not only as traffic lights or in traffic signs, but also within clothes, for example. A red evening gown says: Attention — look here, and I’m up to something!

Photography: inarik Getty Images

In our western culture, green, like blue, is a typical consumption colour. In spring and early summer, only interested people notice how many shades of green there are in nature. For most of us, the green of the forest or the park is an optical consumer good that we accept without further thought. In this context, we find red or orange roses, for example, bright and attention-grabbing.

The dialogue between signal colours and consumption colours, which can develop into an open conflict or sink into the insignificance of a triviality, shows the power of consumption colours. Without them, signal colours are just noise or contour-less alarm.

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