Fun with Googling Colors

I was on the phone with Friend of IBD Howard Aprill not long ago, when he described something as being the color “vermillion.” Because Shea and I are going to present a graphic design workshop this summer at Wehr Nature Center in Milwaukee, where Howard works, and because I am a graphic designer, I felt I should know what color vermillion was. Rather than ask, I changed the subject of the conversation to baseball and on the side, quietly Googled “What color is vermillion?”

Of course, the rest of my afternoon was shot. I’ve always wanted to know the difference between sea foam…

…and sea mist. (Not much.)

Or the difference between cerulean…

…and manganese. (Cerulean’s a little darker, maybe?)

Then, of course, this led to further exploration. (All while Howard and I were still talking, mind you. This may explain why I apparently agreed to sing “I’m a Little Teacup” during our workshop in Milwaukee this summer.) What if you Googled “What color is [something that is not a color]?” Some (but not all) of these turned up interesting results.

What color is nature? (I thought this would come back overwhelmingly green. Kind of refreshing that it did not.)

What color is energy?

What color is Greece?

What color is New Jersey?

And, of course, this led to even more exploration. (At this point in the conversation, evidently, I’ve agreed to buy everyone Brewers tickets and wear a T-shirt that says “I’m Ryan Braun’s pharmacist” to the game.) I took a few of the screen captures above and uploaded them to my favorite color-palette generator, Kuler, which I wrote about way back when.

Here’s what I got for vermillion:

Cerulean:

Energy:

Nature (I love this one):

And New Jersey:

I think what this amounts to is a kind of fun, Internet-based brainstorming—and sometimes it works better than others. I would never commit myself to generating a color palette for a project exclusively using this method, but the results that it returns could be a springboard for thinking about colors in ways that you haven’t before.

I plan to explore this more in the future, and I’d love to see some of the results IBD readers come up with in the comments of this post. In the meantime, I have to figure out why my presenter’s agreement with the Wehr Nature Center says I’m doing Howard Aprill’s laundry.

Getting Canned

Have you ever done something, with really good intentions, and it backfired? I have and now I have the company of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Trust me, you should never give a pet as a gift. Did you know that the average lifespan for a cat is 12-14 years?

Last week Coca-Cola unveiled its recently re-designed holiday can. The can features polar bears and was a collaborative effort with World Wildlife Fund (yes the WWF, who made the WWF the WWE, but that’s fodder for another post), to bring awareness to polar bears. Coke is donating 3 million dollars toward the effort to protect polar bear habitat. This is cool (literally and figuratively). The new can, primarily white, has been met with resistance and confusion by Coke drinkers. The first issue it the can isn’t red. The second issue is that the can is easily confused with a Diet Coke can.

The color red is easily connected to Coca Cola. When something related to your identity becomes iconic, you probably shouldn’t mess with it. Even when you have a tradition of holiday related advertising and promotional items, you have to know your boundaries. In a Yahoo article a Coke spokesman was quoted saying that “The white can resonated with us because it was bold, attention-grabbing.” The article goes on to say that “Coke’s marketing executives wanted a “disruptive” campaign to get consumers’ attention.” (This is fancy corporation talk for “this was my idea and I’m sticking to it.”)

The second issue is that the new holiday can looks remarkably similar to a Diet Coke can. Though, traditionally silver, the frosty look of the white can has confused many Diet Coke drinkers. It is either the cans or the artificial sweetener. Even if you are competing with yourself, it is important to know what the competition is doing. The response to this issue is interesting. It has been broadcast across Twitter and YouTube. It has even brought up old issues of New Coke and a possible switch in recipes, even though there have been no changes. Most of these accusations are related to consumers who grabbed a new white can and thought it was a Diet Coke.

What can interpreters and interpretive designers learn from this? Stay within your boundaries and do go too far outside of what you are expected to do. If your visitors have an emotional connection to your product, keep in mind changes can lead to an emotional response. Don’t forget they won’t be afraid to bring up past indiscretions as well.

Coke has about a billion of the new cans in circulation, so maybe they are hoping no one will notice. Thankfully I didn’t end up with a billion cats.

Halloween: Our Most Visual Holiday

For those of you reading this in the future, today is Halloween. If Halloween does not exist in your time, I can tell you that it was an ancient custom filled with magic, during which kids dressed like monsters, men dressed like women, and women dressed like they were in Las Vegas. Everyone got candy, except for the kids who went to that one house where they gave out apples and toothbrushes.

If you are a time-traveling visitor from the past, here are some interesting facts about today’s Halloween: We don’t carve jack-o-lanterns out of turnips anymore! Now we use pumpkins. (Did you know that pumpkins are actually a fruit, not a vegetable? It’s a crazy world we live in.) And jack-o-lanterns, instead of welcoming the souls of deceased loved ones the way they used to, now welcome ungrateful, entitled children in plastic masks from Wal Mart.

Halloween is one of the most striking holidays from a visual perspective. It has a distinctive color palette: ominous, somber black, and the official color of prop comedian Carrot Top, orange. Centuries ago, Halloween was associated with orange and black because of the season of the holiday (fall) and the time of day that the holiday was observed (night).

These days, the visual vernacular of Halloween is spooky and ghoulish—ghosts, demons, witches, and all sorts of gruesome stuff:

Halloween has lost most of its original reason for being as a religious holiday, and it’s now perpetuated almost entirely through a commonly accepted visual aesthetic (also through the promise of candy). Ultimately, when the trick-or-treaters come by our houses tonight, we’ll all be aware that we’re witnessing a really well-branded product, with a well-defined color palette and visual voice.

That said, I hope you’ll share photos of your costumes with us either here on the blog or on our Facebook page. Happy Halloween!

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.

Scratched IBD Cover

I have heard that a person that is considered a genius is one step away from being off their rocker. Some time ago Paul and I wrote a book titled Interpretation By Design, along with our mysterious and reclusive third author Lisa Brochu. It is not often that one of the co-authors of a book happens to be the art director for the association publishing the book. It wasn’t only Paul’s responsibility to remove all of the y’alls and fixin’ tos from my writing (not that I have an accent); he was responsible for the layout, overall design, and cover for the book.

For some time I have made fun of one of the book covers that Paul designed and submitted to Lisa and me for review and comments. Needless to say, it wasn’t accepted. To this day, Paul claims that we should have approved it (because of the creative genius behind it) and that our oversight is gross negligence. I claim that for people to buy a book they must pick it up and look at it and if their eyes are bleeding, that won’t happen. Lisa and I simply wanted something that didn’t look like gummy bears had melted on the cover of an excellent book or a manual to hosting baby showers. Oh yeah, Lisa is also Paul’s supervisor.

I need your help today. Let me know what you think of the cover in the comments section. There are two versions above (one I call melted gummy bears and the one I call Design Your Baby Shower). You are more than welcome to review both.

I do have to give Paul some credit. There is a clever element, I just wonder if anyone can figure it out. Paul, you can’t play. After some comments have been posted, if no one picks up on the one possibly redeeming element to the design, I will follow up with further discussion in the comment section. We may even let Paul defend his decisions and explain what pushed him off the rocker.

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.