Why Is Blue the Most Popular Favorite Color?

If I say “The Devil Wears Prada,” there’s a good chance your mind goes immediately to one iconic scene: the cerulean monologue. Meryl Streep as cutting fashion magazine editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly turns to Anne Hathaway as Andy, her as-yet clueless assistant wearing a frumpy blue sweater. “What you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis,” Priestly says. “It’s actually cerulean.” The scene goes on, but that line sticks — in part, I think, because of all those glorious shades of blue.

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It’s worth disclosing that my favorite color, since childhood, has always been blue, from the electric periwinkle I painted my bedroom, to the Maya blue of my favorite nail polish, to the watercolor-y brush strokes in the Mnet paintings I love to stare at when I go to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. For an indecisive person, having an umbrella of beautiful answers under a question that forces a choice is a dream come true. And there’s something so immersive about it. “I fell in love with a color — in this case, the color blue — as if falling under a spell,” Maggie Nelson writes in her book “Bluets.”

Not infrequently, a paint company or research agency will do a survey of people’s favorite color. Almost unfailingly, the answer is blue. In 1993, Crayola asked people what their favorite crayon was, and blue took first place. Then in 2000, they repeated the poll to the same result. What’s so enduringly and consistently popular about blue?

The answer is somewhere in your childhood, suggests Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. When you first dumped out that box of 64-count crayons, or wore the same colored shirt five days a week, or, very likely, looked up at the clear blue sky. “[Someone probably said to you],’We’re going to go outside and play and do the things we love because the sky is so beautiful. So you have those very positive connotations [from an early age],” Eiseman explains.

As part of her work with the institute — and research for the 10 books she’s written about color — she’s conducted many color association studies. “Most people, when you ask what they associate with color, will go to nature first. And in any country that you would visit, a beautiful blue sky would have that same connotation — this is something wonderful to look forward to.”

Because a blue sky is guaranteed, even if it means waiting for some clouds or rain to dissipate, it’s a hopeful color, Eiseman says. Even a twilight sky, with its swirling blend of bluish hues, is a positive symbol. “It means the day is winding down. We’re going to have dinner with friends or simply get some rest after a long day,” she says.

All this talk about the sky prompted me to ask the question I have to re-Google the answer to about once a year: Why is the sky blue, again? “Blue light is scattered more than red or green light by both air and water,” explains Mark Fairchild, a professor of color science at Rochester Institute of Technology. “So when we are looking at light that comes to us indirectly from the sun through either air or water it tends to be blue.”

In his work studying how the human eye adapts to different colors of illumination, Fairchild says he’s come across something unique about the color blue: “For many decades, we have thought our visual system’s resting point was for an average daylight color, which is the color of a gray overcast sky. Some of our recent results are suggesting that our resting point is actually the color of sky blue.” It’s an early finding, but, he says, “That makes our perceptions of other colors in a sense relative to sky blue… There is a chance it could be related in some way to the general preference for blue.”

To take the sky association for a test run, I asked my friend Fallon Parfaite, whose favorite color is blue, why that’s the case for her, without any priming. “The best days have been the ones where the sky is popping blue with not a cloud in sight. It’s just the backdrop for a happy day,” she says. But it’s not just happy-go-lucky — it can be moody, too. “[It embodies] happiness and sadness and that’s just like life,” she says. As she’s gotten older, she says her preferred shade has darkened from pale blue to periwinkle (as in Pantone’s 2022 color of the year, Very Peri).

That versatility of blue is another reason color experts say it’s a time-tested favorite. Part of Andrea Magno’s role as director of Color Marketing and Development at Benjamin Moore is forecasting color trends. “When we set out to collect information on trends everything is fair game. We’ll look at fashion, retail, the auto industry, art, culture — literally everything… It’s like putting together a great puzzle of influences to develop a color palette from our exciting collections each year,” she says. And no matter the moment, blue is always there. “I can’t think of a year where some variation of blue was not present in our Color Trends palette and was not an important color in the marketplace,” she notes.

Magno’s go-to shade is navy, “whether it’s woven into an interior color scheme, or a favorite color when shopping for new clothes,” she says. “I gravitate toward navy because it creates a timeless look, but it can feel relaxed, modern, sophisticated, nautical — so many looks and moods depending on the vibe of the room.”

As a color consultant, Amy Wax has put a lot of thought into the many moods of blue. “It’s a crowd pleaser,” she says. “Because it’s not threatening, it’s easygoing. It matches a lot of different colors. There are so many ways in which it denotes honesty and integrity, and there’s nothing about blue that makes us feel edgy or off-center.”

Though Wax loves all of the colors of the rainbow equally, she says there’s something special about the way blue emboldens people to use other hues in their home with more confidence. “Imagine you’re decorating with blue and white and there’s just a splash of lime green? It’s so wonderful. It gives you a completely personal approach to the color blue,” she says. “Blue gives us a way to use a stronger color with confidence because it’s a classic.”

Maybe that’s an answer, if not the only one: Whether blue is your favorite or not, seeing the world in relation to blue empowers us to embrace a whole glorious spectrum of colors.

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