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Written by Sam Sye


Recently, I was working on a project where the product under research involved removable components. During the study, it became increasingly apparent that many users encountered difficulty recognizing the need to remove such components, or how such a task could be accomplished.

Color is a magnificent way to catch users’ attention and direct them to a course of action. However, as we soon discovered, color may carry unintended connotations for end users, which may ultimately backfire. In particular, this product used black arrows to indicate how to remove certain components of the device. The rationale for this particular choice of hue was that it provided the greatest contrast to the white background of the device. Under this criterion, the color of the arrows worked fabulously. Participants indicated this design was eye-catching, easy to see and understand. In the US, the design was vastly preferred to other alternatives.

When we tested the same design overseas, the tune changed (to something vaguely reminiscent of Bavarian folk dancing perhaps, to a more trained ear than mine…). Users in Germany had a starkly different reaction to the black arrows than their US counterparts. To them, black signaled death, which was deeply unsettling to see on a medical device, which by definition is intended to improve one’s health. Some German users preferred arrows depicted in white relief, using tactile, rather than visual elements to highlight the arrows.

How can we explain the opposite responses of the two user groups? Are Germans simply darker and more cynical than Americans? I think not. Rather, what I believe to be more likely is that there are strong, subconscious, cultural forces at play here. It is widely known that colors carry different meanings across different cultures. For example, in the United States, red signals danger, caution or stopping. In contrast, in Eastern cultures, red is a sign of prosperity, good fortune and joy. In other regions of the world, red may connote religious or political associations in addition to emotional ones.

When designing consumer products, in the medical sphere or more generally, it is critical that manufacturers take into account these cultural interpretations of color. Colors that attract consumers in one culture may deter those in others. For medical companies with an international footprint, cultural awareness can spell the difference between a global or regional market for one’s products.

Some Food for Thought…


The impact of color psychology in healthcare extends beyond medical devices to pills as well. Color can have a dramatic impact on how users perceive and interact with their medications. The appearance of a medication, including a pill’s shape and color, can affect how effective a user perceives their treatment to be. This insight is trade knowledge, and as such, drug aesthetics can and have become part of a brand’s protected trademark or patent. We all can think of examples of iconic pills based on their color or shape; Nexium’s “Purple Pill” or Viagra’s blue, diamond-shaped pill, for instance. Such distinctive pills are often subject to “trade dress protection,” which prevents generic pills from too closely mirroring the appearance of their brand name counter parts. The Lanham Act, passed by Congress in 1946, “protects the owner of a federally registered mark against the use of similar marks if such use is likely to result in consumer confusion, or if the dilution of a famous mark is likely to occur.” While the protection of intellectual property is certainly important, it raises interesting questions when applied to the healthcare sphere. If a drug’s color affects how well consumers perceive it to work, could the color of a generic drug compared to brand-name colors impact its perceived or actual efficacy?

Does this raise an ethical dilemma? Do intellectual property rights merit the potentially reduced effectiveness or potency of generic (and therefore cheaper) drugs? If so, to what extent? At its most extreme, does this imply yet another manner of reduced healthcare for the most financially disadvantaged consumers? Such a leap of logic is certainly a stretch, but remains an interesting question for players in the healthcare industry, nonetheless.

Source: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/lanham_act