FAQ Colors and Terminology

Where did the SD color scheme come from?

The Spiral Dynamics® colors came about when black and white training materials got an upgrade. Dr. Graves didn’t use colors to classify the various levels of existence, so beware of those who talk about “the Graves colors” since it’s an indicator of shallow knowledge. The idea of color-coding arose with the SD application. Instead, he relied on his original letter pairs (such as D-Q, see below), as well as on numbers (4th level) and names (absolutistic or even TruthForce, for example) on occasion.

Chris Cowan applied the color scheme to Dr. Graves’ levels of existence in the 1970s when he was making title slides for use in teaching the theory using black&white film. The color code was created as a design element – hand painted at the beginning – for training materials and became a common language when included as part of the publication of the book, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change by Beck and Cowan in 1996.

While there was a loose metaphor behind the colors to make them memorable, Cowan didn’t intend any metaphysical significance or derive the colors from chakras or any other system. The ordering was deliberately picked to differ from the visible light spectrum, though we’ve received complaints now and then from literal-minded folks asking if we can recognize a rainbow when we see one. The express-the-self systems (odd numbers) got warm colors – beige, red, orange, yellow, coral, etc. The sacrifice/deny-the-self systems were all assigned cool colors – purple, blue, green turquoise, etc. The choices were deliberate, though not inspired, and memorable with metaphors that are easy if not accurate:

Beige – savannah grasslands where early hominids lived
Purple – a color of royalty and chiefs (and a mistake in interpreting B-O at the time)
Red – hot emotion and bloody excitement
Blue – heavens above, blue-bloods, and “true blue” loyalty
Orange – the color of industrial age furnaces at work
Green – eco-consciousness and naturalistic approaches
Yellow – solar energy and post-industrial new technologies
Turquoise – the color of earth seen from a meta-level (like the moon) – a holistic living system
Coral – a pun describing what life is below the surface of earths veneer – problems created by a living system view at work
Teal – the successor to Coral because it blends green with turquoise
Aubergine – which blends a dark warm with cool to follow Teal
etc., etc., etc. since the theory is open-ended

In our view, the seventh G-T Yellow system has barely taken hold as a way of behaving in this world. Remember, to think about a system and philosophize what it might be like is not the same as to live in that way and operationalize its values full time. And the counter-pressures are huge. Just look at the impact of D-Q regressions and E-R individualistic consumption today as F-S is barely able to hold on to the commons and keep the planet viable. So defining the existential problems successful large-scale living in a systemic G-T way will produce is nearly impossible at this stage. Next-order problems are unexpected, not extensions of the present. Given that, to pretend what subsequent systems like Coral, Teal, etc. (it’s open-ended, remember), would be mere guesswork – or fiction writing behind a fake theoretician’s mask.

The color code has taken on a life of its own (colors becoming memes in their own right), sometimes to the detriment of the spiral and Gravesian models since color-speak makes discussion of the transition states almost impossible, and casting typology too easy. The Gravesian letter pairs—admittedly somewhat tedious to learn at the outset—offer far more power with differentiations like C-P/d-q versus D-Q/c-p possible to show which of two concurrent systems is more influential.

Some who fall into the trap of color-speak jargon then use it like a judgmental paintball gun to compliment friends and assault foes because they simply don’t understand the theory and the idea that the systems are inherently neutral containers. It’s their contents and manifestations which are for-better or for-worse in contexts. While the Spiral colors have become a lingua franca for some spin-off movements like the integral adopters and spread widely by some knock-off artists, we don’t put much store in the colors, per se, and continue to teach a terminology closer to Gravesian roots than the pop-spirituality derivatives because they offer more explanatory power. You will find some adopters have taken the liberty of reassigning some colors to mask the source in SD. Just remember that Dr. Graves didn’t use colors at all.

Recently, “color inflation” has also taken hold and there’s much talk of 2nd and even 3rd tiers, and colors like Turquoise, Coral, and Teal (or even new ones). For anyone who actually knows the theory, most of these conversations (and books) are rooted in the thinking of more common levels like the Orange (E-R) when it is working effectively and Green (F-S) when it is breaking down silos and removing old organizational constraints, thus liberating people to be themselves and become ‘intervolved’ with each other and the work to be done. While looking forward to Yellow (G-T) and describing how it can be operationalized, the urge to promote their ideas (thus themselves) to ever-higher levels is just too enticing to resist. Many of the most vocal have only superficial acquaintance with the underlying theory, but great confidence in the powers of their own right-thinking minds.

Are the colors linked to the chakras or any other spectral pattern?

Only by coincidence (see above). Nor is there a connection with color therapy. Many people have attributed far more significance to the color scheme than it deserves. By the way, we have not assigned any color for nodal systems which might emerge beyond Turquoise and Coral. Teal and Aubergine are candidates, but Azure and Plum also have a certain aesthetic appeal. If the cyclical pattern holds, future color choices will require the alternation between the cool and warm families with cool colors representing a focus outward to others and external forces and warm colors representing a focus inward to self and internal energies.

Paintballing is what we call the happy-go-lucky, turgid, and almost whimsical use of the color code without evidence as to what Gravesian elements consist of, or how they were used to reach the conclusion. Such superficial name-calling and labeling is generally based more in the subjective observer’s projections than the object of analysis.

This style (typical of the second of five levels of understanding) was made popular in early applications of Graves and revived in many ‘integral’ attempts beginning in the early 2000s to absorb and digest the Spiral Dynamics color code. Use of color-coded jargon conveys mystique and an air of erudition to awe the naïve listener and leave the speaker/writer/critic unchallenged. Yet the use was haphazard and tended to be more a reflection of the speaker’s own inner machinations than anything the more thoughtful analysis required to reach theoretically sound conclusions. It’s easy to slap on colors; it’s hard to explain why they’re justified.

Thus, we refer to the metaphor level approach of the color code the ‘paintball approach.’ The gun (the observer), the balls (the SD colors), and any random target ­­– person or idea – will do. When playing, knowledge and accuracy become less relevant because players have somehow entered an age of “I think; I type; therefore, my text is truth,” and it appears on the internet for all to marvel over. With the vision of a potential viewership of millions comes conviction that the linkage is infallible. Yet those linkages, in most cases, tend to be simplistic complex equivalencies with single-symptom analysis that relies on metaphorical and content-only connections of peripheral effluvia. From small signs grand conclusions easily grow at the metaphor level.

The broad use of the SD color code becomes like a Rorschach test with each user’s ideas, opinions, and views legitimized by citing the “science” of Graves, yet with most metaphor-level claimants having only a rudimentary understanding of what Graves did and did not conclude. So wild claims go unfiltered, unchallenged, and unchecked. The lingo drawn from Spiral Dynamics becomes a whole new way to be taken seriously and uncontested behind a cover of inscrutability.

The situation has become more confounding as a race emerged in discussion groups, blogs, and threads where anonymous individuals holding similar interests sought to outdo one another in the exhilarating new game of Spiral Paintball. Virtually anything that gets a person’s attention – whether an idea, behavior, person, or incident – it doesn’t matter. It gets “colored,” sometimes more like a child with a new box of crayons scribbling indiscriminately upon walls and furniture rather than cogent analysis. Paint balling becomes name calling – both compliments and curses. In those rare instances when there is something Gravesian in the discussions, the likelihood of accuracy in the labeling tends to be one-in-ten. To up those odds, users must stretch beyond the comfort zone of pigmented personality and look to the double-helix biopsychosocial elements at work.

The latest spin-off we’ve noted comes from the integral community which has borrowed so heavily from Spiral Dynamics® and Dr. Graves. A recent effort presents a more spectral sequence. As readers of this site should know, the SD colors were deliberately chosen to get away from that and to offer a less hierarchical language for describing differences without (necessarily) suggesting qualitative (and either pejorative or laudatory) differences due to position in the sequence. Numbers, alphabet order, or even a ‘spectrum of consciousness’ tend to emphasize a sort order, even when it is not constructive to do so. The latest rendition we’ve seen roughly corresponds thus: SD Beige ≈ infrared, Purple ≈ magenta, Red ≈ red, Blue ≈ amber, Orange ≈ orange, Green ≈ green, and Yellow ≈ teal. Other than confusion, we remain curious what those modifications are intended to contribute and why the need to re-label the levels.

Graves’s Terminology – Letter Pairs

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Clare W. Graves’ original descriptions, the letter pairs represent the Levels of Psychological Existence along the emergent double-helix as Life Conditions (times, place, problems, circumstances represented by the first letter in most writings) interact with the neurobiological Coping Systems (the second letter) activated in the mind/brain.

Graves’s letter pair terminology is elegantly simple: A-N, B-O, C-P, D-Q, E-R, F-S, A’-N’ (or G-T), B’-O’ (or H-U), etc. The first letter designates the problems of existence in the milieu and the second letter in the pairing the corresponding neuronal capacity for coping with such conditions.
There are two transitional stages between each pair, Entering and Exiting. These phases are represented using upper and lower case letters: A-N/b-o, B-O/a-n, B-O, B-O/c-p, C-P/b-o, etc. Neither the colors do nor numbers lend themselves to representing these transitional phases, so we rely on letter pairs in our Spiral Dynamics programs. (Sometimes the hyphen is omitted to save a keystroke even though it draws attention to the bond between helix 1 and helix 2.)

Changes of conceptual system can lead to actions that change the world. Shifts in the world can alter the workings of the mind. The model is open-ended, a work-in-progress which invites further development and research as new Levels of Existence emerge.