Colour more abstract than shape

When designing a building, traditionally an architect begins with the drawing of the shape. The colour is usually added in a later phase. The same method is applied by most visual creatives such as industrial designers, artists, graphic designers, etc. This gives the idea that shape in the creative process is more important or more basic than colour. Recent findings from analytical philosophy, semantics and cognitive psychology could undermine this view.

Creativity arises from intuition; a way of thinking that is non-verbal, following a gradient towards the conscious. The design process begins at an abstract, subconscious and non-verbal level and ends in concrete imagery. “Visual thinking, defined sometimes as generation and manipulation of images that come both from imaginary and from abstract systems, involves visual processing beyond the definitions of language.” (Ursyn, 2014) The abstract way of thinking was observed at least 70.000 years ago. Archaeological finds are considered an evidence of cognitive abilities allowing abstract thought. (Ursyn, 2014) Abstract and intuitive thinking is a natural process and is essential in creativity.

Even though visual design is concerned here, the designer is busy communicating. Only recently analytic philosophers and linguists examine the phenomenon of abstract objects in language. The notion of an ‘abstract object’ as used in philosophical contexts, is first introduced by Gottlob Frege, a German philosopher, logician, and mathematician (Philosophy of Language). Objects in this sense can not be understood as in a familiar everyday use, such as objects found on your desktop. According to philosopher Hale (1987), a language object is a referent of an actual or possible singular term.

Abstract objects are discussed, with mathematical signs in mind, such as numbers and geometric shapes. Abstract is placed opposed to concrete terms. “The fact that while much of our talk and thought concerns concrete objects, a significant part of it appears to be about objects which lie outside space and time.” (Hale, 1987) The British philosopher Dummett distinguishes abstract objects that have a strong reference in the sense of semantic role, whose objects are ‘internal to language’ and on the other side concrete objects which have a reference in the sense of semantic role as well as a ‘realistic’ conception of reference as a relation to something ‘external’. (Duke, 2012)

Can colours and shapes also be considered as abstract objects? If yes, do they have the same degree of abstraction? These questions are important because, as mentioned above, abstract thinking is the basis of the design process. When comparing abstract objects like numbers to colours, a big similarity occurs. Numbers, used as a singular term, can also stand for a number of things, f.i. such as in ‘three flowers’ or ‘nine vases’. The same goes for colour terms such as ‘blue’’, when used as the name of a colour, does not mean ‘the colour of the sky’. Blue can stand, just like numbers, for several different things such as in ‘blue flower or ‘blue vase’.

Another starting point for determining whether colours and shapes are abstract objects is that of language development in children. A child can talk about colours without knowing colour names first. It puts connections like ‘has the same colour as’ or ‘is darker than’, before he learns to make reference to material and visual objects. It is only in a later stage of development that the child learns colour names and uses it in sentences such as ‘the blue vase’ or ‘the colour of the vase’. Names of colours are learned by pointing out examples. A child points to the vase and asks ‘what is that?’. The answer is then ‘sky-blue’. This phenomenon, however, does not apply to shape, as many shapes have no name. We can define shapes using its parameters such as ’round’ or ‘ordered’. We refer to shapes due to their similarity to concrete objects such as ‘ball’ or ‘cross’. In no case can we place a shape parameter or shape name as an adjective before every concrete object, in the way we can with numbers and colours.

In addition, shapes are more complex than colours in their description. Colours need only three parameters for identification, namely those from the physical colour space: hue, lightness and saturation. Forms on the other hand – whether abstract or concrete – require at least six parameters for an adequate description. I refer to my experiment to construct a shape space similar to the physical colour space. It shows that colours require fewer descriptions than shapes.

According to Dummett, colours are on the borderline between abstract and concrete objects. He makes a clear distinction between colours on the one hand and shapes on the other. A shape has to be taken as the shape of something, but a colour need not necessarily be understood as the colour of anything. According to his definition, colours are thus abstract objects who have a strong reference in the sense of semantic role ‘internal to language’. “In the simplest possible terms, shapes, but not colours, are essentially ‘of’ something else, namely objects that belong on the concrete side of the divide.” (Duke, 2012)

Considering all these arguments and assuming that colours are more abstract than shapes, this has consequences for the method we use to design. Because of their strong semantic reference, colours may be far better suited as a start of a design than shapes do. Instead of drawing lines first it would be more natural and intuitive to assemble a colour combination that expresses a wanted meaning or feeling. Once this rather abstract and pure notion is established, shape, texture etc. can follow. In fact, we are already on this path by assembling mood-boards, a recent design method that has proven its usefulness and is popular with designers. In that, shapes and colours are used in equal value. Now it’s time to go one step further and recognize the full value and power of colour in the creative process.


Dummett, M. Frege: Philosophy of Language. New York, Harper & Row Publishers. 1973.

Duke, G. Dummett on Abstract Objects. Deakin University, Victoria, Australia. Palgrave, macmillan, 2012.

Hale, B. Abstract Objects. Oxford: Basil Blackwells, 1987.

Hale, B. Review. Duke, G. Dummett on Abstract Objects. History of Analitic Philosophy. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire. Palgrave, Macmillan, 2012.

Michiels, I. Shape space, experiment.

Moltmann, F. Abstract Objects and the Semantics of Natural Language. United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Ursyn, A. Perceptions of Knowledge Visualization: Explaining Concepts through Meaningful Images. United States, Hershey. Information Science Reference, IGI Global. 2014.


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