Get to Know Some Colors! Black and White are Colors

First, let’s dispense with the nonsense: Everyone who saw the headline of this post and said, “But [black or white] is not a color! It’s the absence of all colors!” you are free to go. I suggest that you spend the rest of your day here.

For those of you still here, I’m glad we can agree that black and white are both colors. All of those people who just left would have told you that black is not a color (and white is the presence of all colors) when you think about color as light frequencies, and that white is not a color (and that black is the presence of all colors) when you think about color in terms of physical pigments (like paint or ink). You can see more about this on the Color Matters website.

But let me ask you this: If one of those geeks is wearing a black (or white) T-shirt, and you ask them what color it is, would they tell you it’s not a color?

In terms of cultural associations, black and white are quintessentially opposite, as represented in the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol. In many cultures, black is associated with evil, mourning, power, and Johnny Cash. White is associated with light, purity, innocence, and Madonna (the Christian religious figure, not the musician). Of course, as always, these associations vary across cultures (for instance, white is the color of mourning is China).

Black is the color of famous fictional villains such as Dracula, Darth Vader, and the Oakland Raiders. White is worn by brides, medical professionals, scientists, and me between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In martial arts, the black belt signifies the highest rank, while the white belt represents someone who would run screaming from the person with the black belt.

In design, black and white are considered neutral, but they have starkly different effects. While it’s true that black and white are technically neutral, I have always considered black to be cool and white to be warm. (I wish I had some reference to point you to so that I could back that up, but I don’t.) Part of the reason for this is that black shares traits and associations with cool colors (it’s somber and subdued), while white has a lot in common with warm colors (it’s bright and energetic).

In this Polo Black ad and others like it, the color black (that’s right, geeks, I said it) is mysterious and sophisticated (not to mention dreamy).

Apple has used a white backdrop as a part of its visual identity for years to convey friendliness, openness, and accessibility. The famous Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s used white the same way.

In the end, even though most graphic designers use black and white more than any other colors, it’s easy to overlook their importance as design elements (probably because they are so prevalent). Once you accept that black and white are indeed colors, the next step is to carefully consider the substantial impact they have on your communication.

And if anyone tries to tell you that black and white are not colors, ask them what colors a zebra is.

Get to Know a Color! Good Green, Bad Green

If you are green over your neighbor’s green thumb, you are filled with envy at how good she is at making plants grow. If you’re green around the gills in the town green, you’re about to throw up in a common public area. And if seeing your friend’s wallet full of greenbacks makes the green-eyed monster rear its ugly head, you’re jealous over how much (American) money your friend has.

And if you think this is the stupidest hat you’ve ever seen, then you have good sense.

As with all colors, green has many and sometimes contradictory meanings. It is associated with nature and regeneration. In fact, the word itself has its roots (ha!) in the Old English grōwan, which means to grow. It has a relaxing effect, which is why guests on TV shows calm themselves in “green rooms” before going on air. (Though based on the review I heard of his performance at the Oscars, James Franco has other ways of relaxing before going on air.)

On the other hand, green is associated with illness, jealousy, and inexperience. If you’re roping cattle, which you probably are not, the last thing you want to be is a greenhorn.

According to Sensational Color, green represents paradise in Iran, eternal life in Japan, hope in Portugal, and beauty in China. In Ireland, green represents leprechauns and rolling hills and fertility and Saint Patrick and bread that’s been left out too long and pretty much everything else. I think it’s the only color they have over there.

Green has a decidedly negative connotation with NASCAR race car drivers. When I first read this, I assumed it was because NASCAR is about the least green activity I can think of—43 cars burning as much fuel as possible for up to five hours at a time. The real reason, it turns out, is that there was a really bad accident involving a green car in 1920.

Though green is a combination of yellow, a warm color, and blue, a cool color, it is generally considered a cool color. That said, there is such a thing as warm green (lime green, for example). I used a warm green to promote the NAI International Conference in Panama (which starts this week!). While cool green has a calming effect, this warm green has a higher level of energy about it.

According to most sources, green takes up a larger portion of the spectrum of colors visible to the human eye than any other color. It’s technically a secondary color (along with purple and orange), but I have bestowed upon it the status of Honorary Primary Color. This is because there are two warm primaries (red and yellow) and only one cool primary (blue). So whenever a designer is using the primary colors and wants to achieve warm/cool balance, they add green.

Used with its complement, red, green creates a vibrant, lively palette (and one that for many is closely associated with Christmas). A low-contrast, analogous combination like blue and green creates a calm, soothing palette. In fact, a blue-green palette has such low contrast that, according to Wikipedia, many languages in Africa and Asia do not even have words to distinguish between the two colors.

When it comes to interpretive design, we encourage designers to select meaningful colors based on some sort of natural or cultural feature related to their site or organization. One of my favorite examples of meaningful, effective use of color is this is this illustration by Michael Schwab Studio, which perfectly captures the thick canopy of Muir Woods National Monument through simple but considered use of color, including a just-right shade of green.

Because of its associations with nature, green is used in design to represent organizations that are environmentally friendly. Of course, this has led to greenwashing, where corporations or other organizations falsely claim environmentally friendly practices. (Before I forget, I should point out that this Interpretation By Design blog appears only on organic, FSC-certified, recycled computer monitors. That’s why it’s so expensive.)

Organizations that want to emphasize their focus on nature use organic forms and a green-based color palette. The logos above are from a collection of 75 green logos on the site 1stWebDesigner.

To sum up for designers, green is a pleasing, popular color that is safe to use in large quantities, unless the thing you’re designing is a Yankees hat.

Also in this series: Red, Blue, Yellow, Purple, Orange.

 

Get to Know a Color! Orange is Controversial

The color orange elicits strong reactions. For instance, it makes the Syracuse University mascot smile (though he does not have much to smile about at the moment) and it surprises prop comedian Carrot Top.

The website Sensational Color proclaims that orange “sparks more controversy than any other hue,” and that it “elicits a stronger ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ response than other colors.” I learned this firsthand early on in my design career, when I used bright orange in one project and was thereafter known to some of my orange-hating coworkers as “Mr. Orange,” “that guy who uses orange all the time,” or “fat idiot.”

A combination of primary colors red and yellow, orange is a secondary color. It’s warm, so most color theory sources agree that orange is an upbeat, high-energy color and a stimulant of everything from appetite to brain activity. The website Color Wheel Pro says that “orange increases oxygen supply to the brain” and is “highly accepted by young people.” (I’m not sure what they mean by “young people,” but my orange-haired four-year-old daughter likes orange, and she does not shy away from controversy.)

According to Wikipedia, the name of the color comes from the name of the fruit, and “the first recorded use of orange as a color name in English was in 1512, in the court of King Henry VIII.” (Also according to Wikipedia, George Clooney is president of the United States and William Shakespeare was born in 1927 and was raised by a family of squirrels, so take that with a grain of salt.)

In various cultures, according to Sensational Color, orange is accociated with happiness and love (China and Japan), family (Native American), gluttony (Christianity), and Tang (USA). (Okay, that last part wasn’t in that article, but you know it’s true.) Bright, citrus-like orange is associated with spring and summer, while darker orange is associated with fall.

Speaking of controversy, even though the Dutch flag is red, white, and blue, orange is considered the color of Dutch national pride (not to mention their soccer team, the Oranje). Why? Because orange is the color of the Dutch royal family, which “hails from the House of Orange,” according to the article “Why the Dutch Wear Orange” on the website Dutch Amsterdam. In fact, the Dutch celebrate Queen’s Day every April 30 by singing, “Oranje boven, oranje boven, leve the Koningin!” (Orange on top, orange on top, long live the Queen!), presumably while waving red, white, and blue flags.

Another interesting fact about orange is that every single time I have ever heard the soon-to-be-defunct color-coded terror threat level announced in an airport, it has been orange.

In design, orange can be used to attract attention without being as alarming as red or as oppressively cheery as yellow, but if you use it, be prepared to deal with the orange haters.

Orange is often used with its complement, blue, to create a bold, vibrant color palette, which is why you often see this combination in the uniforms of sports teams, such as the Denver Broncos football team, the stupid New York Mets baseball team (who, if they never win another game ever, it would be fine with me), and countless college and university athletic programs. This striking, blue-orange palette is frequently used in aquariums to draw out the color of the particular species of jellyfish pictured here. The photo above is from the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada, but it’s no accident that you see this blue used in this sort of display in many aquariums.

As with other warm colors, it’s easy to overuse orange. Because of its brightness, pure orange is best used as a highlight color, especially online. The website examples above mitigate the offensive effects of orange by using a light, peachy tint (Pampaneo) or using it at full saturation, but sparingly (Glue). (These examples are borrowed from the article “24 Examples of Orange Websites” on the website Inspiredology.)

Also easy to overuse is this joke: Knock knock. Who’s there? Banana. Banana who? Knock knock. Who’s there? Banana. Banana who? Knock knock. Who’s there? Orange. Orange who? Orange ya glad I didn’t say banana?

Finally, orange is high in Vitamin C, which prevents scurvy, and that’s something we can all agree on.

Also in this series (so far): Red, Blue, Yellow, Purple.
Photos courtesy The Sports Bank and ABC.

Get to Know a Color! Purple is a Snooty Misfit

Purple is a fence-sitter, and needs to make up its mind on a few things. As a combination of red and blue, it’s neither warm nor cool (though unlike us, it’s considered cool in most instances). Alternatively, as a combination of red and blue, purple is simultaneously warm and cool. However you look at it, purple is hard to pin down.

Further, some people aren’t even sure if purple is one color or two. Isaac Newton’s original list of seven pure spectral hues included violet and indigo (violet leans toward red, indigo towards blue). Most people who are not Isaac Newton or do not work for Crayola, however, consider everything between blue and red on the color wheel purple.

Not only is purple hard to categorize or even name, it can be a little full of itself. In many cultures, it’s the color of nobility and royalty (well, la-dee-da!). It’s associated with magic, mystery, and spirituality. According to an article on About.com, “Purple has a special, almost sacred place in nature: lavender, orchid, lilac, and violet flowers are often delicate and considered precious.” Precious indeed. And as if that’s not enough to stroke purple’s ego, hue number 18-3943 (called “Blue Iris,” but really it’s purple) was named Pantone’s color of the year in 2008.

While purple does tend to look down its nose at the world, it is redeemed (somewhat) by its association with one of the all-time-great children’s books, Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Along with orange and green, it’s a secondary color. Used with its complement, yellow, purple creates a bold, high-frequency palette (as with the uniforms and logo of the extra-annoying Los Angeles Lakers basketball team). Used with blue or red, it creates a more subtle analogous palette.

On the color spectrum, purple (or violet, or whatever) lies at the very shortest frequency of wavelengths visible to human eye (measured in the chart here in nanometers). Go any lower on that spectrum beyond the visible frequencies and you get ultraviolet light, which, like this blog, can cause skin irritation if you don’t protect yourself. (Go past red on the other end of the visible spectrum and you get infrared light.)

As with all colors, purple has varied and sometimes contradictory associations in different cultures. In the US military, the Purple Heart recognizes the courage of wounded personnel. According to the article All About the Color Purple on the website Sensational Color, purple is worn by Catholic priests (sometimes), Thai widows, Minnesota Vikings, and Ukrainian eggs. It’s the color of wealth and status in Japan, and virtue and faith in Egypt.

Purple is not commonly used in logo design, so it was kind of big news in nerd/geek circles a couple years ago when Yahoo changed its mark from red to purple. (I think everyone remembers where they were when they first heard that news in June 2008.)

For designers, purple’s schizofrenic, warm/cool nature offers the opportunity to create a rich palette based just on this one color. The combination of warm purple (trending toward violet or magenta) with cool purple (trending toward indigo or very dark blue) makes effective use of just a small portion of the color wheel while still featuring enough contrast to be interesting.

Used creatively and appropriately, purple can be striking and powerful. Just don’t tell it I said so or it’ll get an even bigger head than it already has.

Play-Doh flower photo by Alex Bruda. Purple texture image by Ali Farid.

Get to Know a Color! Yellow Makes Babies Cry

Photo courtesy www.pitrih.deviantart.com.

Yellow is generally associated with happiness, but consider this disturbing scientifically proven fact: Yellow rooms make babies cry. So, designers, if you want to create compositions that make babies cry, use a lot of yellow. And expecting parents, if you’re debating whether to find out the gender of your baby before it’s born, definitely do it or you’re going to end up with a bunch of yellow gifts and an unhappy baby.

With that, welcome to the third installment of Get to Know a Color! We’ve touched on red and blue already, so we’ll wrap up the primary colors, also known as the Fisher-Price triad, with yellow.

Yellow is the brightest of the pure hues, which means that it was reading entire chapter books before it turned four and can do a dinosaur-shaped floor puzzle with no help from Mommy and Daddy. (Sorry, can you tell it’s the holiday season and I’ve been spending a lot of time with my family recently?) It actually means that it’s the first color you’ll see against a black background and has very little contrast against a white background.

Most everything you read about the color yellow will begin with its positive associations—it’s the color of optimism, sunshine, and joy. Yellow, a warm color, is found on ribbons that represent the hope of people waiting for their loved ones to return safely from war. It’s said that it encourages communication and stimulates the mind.

But this little tidbit from the website Color Matters is an important warning for designers who want to use a lot of yellow:

Yellow, pure bright lemon yellow, is the most fatiguing color. Why? The answer comes from the physics of light and optics. More light is reflected by bright colors, resulting in excessive stimulation of the eyes. Therefore, yellow is an eye irritant.

Photo by Alan O'Neill

This article goes on to say that in large quantities, cheerful, sunshiny yellow makes people irritable and argumentative. This may explain the disposition of my eighth-grade bus driver and every New York City cab driver.

The cultural associations with yellow, as with any color, are contradictory. While yellow is seen as overwhelmingly cheerful, if you ask someone, “What are ya, yella?” you’re calling them a coward (or you are worried about jaundice). A yellow journalist is one of low moral standards.

Globally, yellow is associated with the Ming and Qing dynasties in China, while in India it’s the color of the farmer caste, according to an article on the website Sensational Color. Yellow has specific associations in Greek (sadness), French (jealousy), Japanese (courage), Aztec (food, specifically corn), and Christian (greed) cultures.

Photo by Peter Firminger

Yellow is used to get attention and signify warning on traffic signs, as with this extra-adorable wombat crossing sign from Australia. In sports, it’s used on warning flags in auto-racing and to indicate penalties in American football.

And finally, if you’re a supervillain and need to thwart the Green Lantern’s fancy super ring, all you have to do is paint your death ray yellow and you’ll be fine, because as everyone knows, the Green Lantern does not like yellow, and his ring is powerless against it.

To sum up, pure yellow is like Reese Witherspoon: uplifting and cheerful in small doses, but too much of it at once is hard to take. And it makes babies cry.

Get to Know a Color! Blue

I’m writing about the color blue this week, and not just because that’s how Shea and I are feeling after our respective teams were dismissed from the baseball playoffs this weekend. Welcome to the second installment of “Get to Know a Color!”

If you go into the blue out of the blue, you are going somewhere unknown unexpectedly. If you take the blue ribbon while singing the Blues, you are the best there is at making sad music. If you use blue language to describe blue laws, you are angry about government trying to legislate morality.

And if you’re feeling blue about Blue Hens football, you are sad about the state of the team from the University of Delaware. (Though why would you be? They’re ranked #2 in the country!)

While many of the phrases that involve the word blue denote sadness, there is a generally positive association with the color. In fact, it is cited in many places as the most common favorite color (though I’ve not seen a formal study that confirms this).

The color blue is seen in many cultures to represent calm—like a blue sky or smooth waters. (Taking tranquility to the extreme, blue can also represent depression or sadness.) An article on color psychology by Kendra Cherry indicates that blue is used to decorate bedrooms because of its calming influence, and that research shows that people work more efficiently in rooms decorated in blue. (These two facts seem incongruous to me, but the general idea seems to be that the calming influence of a blue room helps people both sleep and concentrate, presumably not at the same time.)

In terms of the physics of how we see color, only purple exists on a lower frequency of wavelengths visible to the human eye.

As with any color, blue is seen differently in different cultures. In Iran, blue is the color of mourning. An article on About.com titled A Vast Ocean of Blue by Blythe Langley indicates that blue represents spirituality or Heaven in Eastern cultures, while in the West it is associated more with the corporate world. Because in Western cultures blue has come to represent stability and importance, navy blue is the de facto choice for business suits. (There is still no explanation for Shea’s affinity for his light blue Seersucker suit.)

Blue is an appetite suppressant, a fact often attributed to the lack of naturally occurring blue food (even blueberries are more purple than blue). Clearly, then, the traditional navy blue power suit is the result of important people not wanting to be eaten.

In design, the cool color blue is often used with its warm complement, orange, to create a vibrant, powerful palette. Because of the bold statement it makes, the blue-orange palette is common on sports uniforms (see Boise State, the University of Virginia, the Denver Broncos, the New York Mets, and countless others). Blue is also frequently paired with green to create a soothing, analogous palette that connotes a feeling of nature.

Blue is common in logo design. A blog post by Jennifer Moline on the site Inspiredology highlights “15 Blue Logos that Evoke Precision” (though the post leaves out what to me is the most obvious precise blue logo, Paul Rand’s iconic IBM).

And finally, as I researched this post, I kept stumbling on this odd tidbit: Research shows that weight lifters perform better in rooms that are painted blue. For interpreters, this is can be an important fact if you have identified your target audience as Hans and Franz. (A 1980s Saturday Night Live reference is timely and hip, right?)

I associate the color blue with an all-too-brief visit my wife and I made last year to the Greek island of Santorini (pictured at the top of this post). Our time there was spent under clear skies and overlooking the sparkling Aegean Sea. Under the blazing sun, buildings like the iconic church pictured here were blue and white, almost without exception. I have a distinct recollection of being surrounded by blue, and it was as relaxing a time as I can remember (though that’s in part because the children were home with their grandparents).

Making color choices in design is difficult because every individual brings his or her own experiences and preconceptions to the table, but with a basic understanding of how color is generally perceived within the culture for whom your work is intended, designers and interpreters can make meaningful decisions.