Understanding Color: Top Down and Bottom Up Thinking

Understanding color and effectively using it requires that you know how people perceive color from what I call “bottom up” and “top down” thinking.

Top Down Thinking

Top down thinking is our brain telling us what it expects to see, hear, taste, touch or smell. For example cream is white, a yellow candle smells like lemons, a kitten’s fur is soft or brown ice cream taste like chocolate. Let me first give you an example from my own life that doesn’t involve color.

You may have had a similar experience yourself. Almost daily, I would get an unsweetened ice tea before I left the office to drink on my long commute home. One day I was feeling a little queasy so I decided to get a Coke instead. By the time I got in my car my mind was elsewhere and I had forgotten my alternative choice. When I took the first sip my reaction was more than just surprise. My body reacted physically and I had the urge to spit out the soda.

There was nothing wrong with the Coke other than it was not what my brain was expecting to taste. After so many months of drinking iced tea out of this same type of cup while in my car that is exactly what my mind was telling me to expect to taste again this time. When the flavor didn’t match my minds expectations it went into high alert. In the case of taste, the brain shifted into a mode designed to protect me from consuming something that could potentially be harmful. Have you ever tasted something that turned out to taste different than you expected. How did you react?

So how does top down thinking come into play with color? One way is the example I showed you with the Heinz ketchup. The container, logo, label and red color of a Heinz ketchup bottle are familiar to most people. We know from experience what it is and how it is suppose to look. Seeing ketchup in a different color grabs or attention and possibly arouses our curiosity. This is exactly what product marketers hope will happen and lead to a purchse.

Just seeing the unexpect ketchp color does not usually cause a physical reaction; tasting the green or purple or blue ketchup can have a different effect. Even though you know that there is not anything wrong with the ketchup it can be difficult to overcome the signals in your mind telling you otherwise. Could that fact that it was difficult to enjoy be the reason that this product was short-lived?

Bottom Up

Bottoms up thinking is almost the opposite. It is a reaction that comes from so deep inside that you react virtually without thinking. Often this is referred to as a gut reaction. This is where your mind recognizes certain details in the world around you in an instant. Motion is one of the things we pick up even if it takes place in our peripheral vision. There is a mechanism built into your brain that senses motion and protect yourself from danger.

Color, contour, edges of shapes and contrast can also instinctively grab our attention. For example, the color and high contrast of bright yellow and black outdoors can signal something dangerous– a bee, snake or road hazzard.

How Top Down and Bottom Up Thinking Work Together

Neither the “top down” or “bottoms up” process work completely independently of one another. Logo design is a good example of how the two work hand in hand. The first time a logo gets your attention it is often a “bottoms up” experience.   After you become familiar with the logo you will instantly recognize the colors and design from a “top down” perspective because you “know” what it is.

This is why companies want a logo that both catches you attention and sticks in your mind. The value of a great brand is worth protecting and companies take legal measure to protect it. They know that if another company copies their colors and design too closely your brain could confuse the two.

Now while you are thinking about logos and brand color here is a fun challenge from Business Insider:

Can You Identify These 12 Brands By Their Trademarked Colors Alone?



  1. Much of what we discuss with clients is new to them, so likely bottom up perception is occurring. More time should be given to discussion and repetition of the subject matter, so that assimilation can be more accurate and more acceptable.

  2. Michele Orellana says

    Very interesting on how your vision changes when you age.