Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 21, Elements: The Color of Design

Download Episode 21

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the Formal Elements, which we've defined as the building blocks of two dimensional design.

To that end, we've touched on Line and Shape so far, and just enough to convey their importance without getting too in-depth or technical. And I'd like to do the same today with Color.

Now, Color is a pretty broad topic. We could speak about it at length for many episodes, and the temptation is to get technical. And there IS a ton of information we ought to know about color. For starters, we hear about additive and subtractive color. And then there's the issue of color management. Or we hear about proprietary tools like the Pantone Matching system. And then there're those color models that we've heard of since Kintergarten, the color wheels that help us identify color relationships. We use terms like primary, secondary colors, complimentary, split-complimentary, analogous, to name some. And of course, there are what you might call the anatomical aspects of color - hue and saturation, etc. All these things and more really are essential to your education as a designer. And hopefully we'll have opportunity to explore many of these aspects in the future. And these give you the technical foundation you need to deploy color successfully in your projects.

But today I want to offer some basic thoughts on how we should think about color. And this has more to do with communication than anything else. Because, in the final analysis, designers use color to convey meaning, whether that's through obvious color symbolism or more subliminally, in order to strike a mood.

Color specialist Leatrice Eiseman says it this way.

She says, "Figure out the thing that color does. Being the complicated creatures that we are, our reactions go well beyond the physical phenomena (of color)....(they go to) the psychological response. If lavender appears lighter than purple, it is purely a sensory occurrence. It is simply what we see. But if lavender suggests a feeling of nostalgia or romance, then psychological reactions are brought into play." (1)
(end of quotation)

So the big idea is that we associate color with certain things. And as a result, we REACT to color. We RESPOND to color. For example, we speak in terms of color temperature. There are warm colors and there are cool colors. And there's a host of inbetween states, where warm and cool colors mix, and the "meaning" gets more nuanced and subtle. But we react to all these colors. They impact us .

And we may have our own personal feelings about certain colors. But the designer's job (usually) is to set aside our individual feelings and preferences for color, and play to general percpetions. For example, Green often stands for the growth and vitality we associate with vegetation, and so we can play to that perception when appropriate. I recently had some involvement in the development of a corporate logo where green was employed to mean "environmentally friendly," a popular cliche I wanted to resist at first, because it is such a cliche, and because I think people can grow cynical about such cliches, but it became inescapable in the end. It was too central to the message this corporate mark needed to embody.

Now, as designers, our typical use of color is through our software apps. In these applications, we label them with pantone or hexidecimal or rgb values. Not very.... emotionally charging. And that's a potential problem for us. Because they're just numbers. They're abstract. And this could have a sterilizing effect.

But there's a wonderful antidote for this. There's a way to emotionally charge those colors again. And that's to put descriptive names on colors. My favorite way of doing so is to spend a little time over by the paint swatches in a place like Lowe's or Home Depot. Here you'll find wonderfully evocative names for color. Names designed to stir up emotion, not just paint. A certain shade of green isn't called green, it's called Wasabi, which puts me in mind of the last time I had Sushi. Or a certain blue is called Ocean Whisper. Or a soft brown is called "Wicker" or "Sataki." You get the idea. If you think about it, we were first acquainted with such associations when we were just tikes, with our boxes of Crayolas, where discovered names for colors like "burnt sienna."

The best thing I've read on color, lately, comes from a book I have, published by Pottery Barn, of all places. It's called "Bathrooms: Ideas and Inspiration for Stylish Bathing Spaces." And they've got a section on color, in which they say the following:

"Color is a science and an art. In simple terms, the science of color has to with light while the art of color revolves around pigment. But the art of color also deals with chemistry - the chemistry of emotion. It's a pleasure to find the different combinations of hues that create a happy visual experience and express your own color point of view.... To choose colors for your bathroom, simply look at what you love and what you love to live with." (end of quotation) (2)

I like this quotation because it reminds me that, in a real sense, designers are creating places, we're creating experiences. And that we can use color to push all the appropriate emotional buttons in our audience. And in this way, color is strategic. It's yet another example of that analogy of the opening moves in a chess game.

So, to summarize. It's important that we gain technical knowledge about color, but ultimately, this knowledge should serve the goal that Leatrice Eiseman identified. Which is to figure out the thing that color does. Figure out how you want to impact your audience. And then choose colors that will cause the desired effect.

But's that's all for today. Thanks again for listening in. If you'd like a transcript of the show, visit the webpage at designguyshow.blogspot.com. Music is by Kcentricity.com

I thank you again for listening, and I hope to have you back again.


1. Eiseman contributes a short chapter on color to Hillman Curtis' MTIV: Making the Invisible Invisible: Principles, Practice and Inspiration for the New Media Designer.

2. Oxmoor House, 2003, Pottery Barn Bathrooms

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