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.

Good Flag, Bad Flag

I recently received a 1,019-word email from Friend of IBD Howard Aprill on the subject of flag design. Howard does this sort of thing because he blames us for the fact that he now notices design stuff and reads blogs, and he wants to get back at us for wasting his time.

I received Howard’s email about a month ago and I just finished reading it, so I thought I’d share parts of it with you. Evidently, Howard stumbled across a website for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), which I was disappointed to learn has nothing to do with making people angry. Turns out, according to the organization’s website, vexillology is “the scientific and scholarly study of flag history and symbolism.”

NAVA’s website (which, ironically, is a jumbled mess, full of boxes and centered type) links to a pdf of a brochure called “Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag.” The brochure contains this sage advice, with Howard’s comments in parentheses:

  1. Keep it simple. (Duh.)
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. (Double duh.)
  3. Use 2–3 basic colors. (Makes sense to me but I’m interested in your thoughts on this.)
  4. No lettering or seals. (Apparently this is the Comic Sans equivalent of the flag world.)
  5. Be distinctive or be related.

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These points are consistent with the advice graphic designers and interpreters offer—essentially, keep it clean, use a defined color palette, and above all be meaningful. (Though I would argue, related to point #4, that it would be okay for an organization devoted to the conservation and understanding of sea mammals to use a seal in its design.)

Even better than NAVA’s five design principles, NAVA’s website features a link to the results of a 2004 survey that ranks the design of flags from 150 U.S. cities. The ratings go from #1, Washington, DC (on the left, above) to #150, Pocatello, Idaho, where they are as proud of their mountains as they are their Microsoft WordArt.

Howard’s hometown of Milwaukee ranks 147th on the list. While he recognizes that the flag, designed in the 1950s, violates all stated and most unwritten rules of design (and a couple international laws related to the Geneva Convention), Howard offers this impassioned defense:

I think it’s a time capsule that captures the essence of post World War II Milwaukee. You notice that it’s busy filled with LOTS of things. Well that’s how folks felt about their town. The gear represents industry (at one time we actually MADE things in this town), the Native American head represents our original inhabitants, the ship represents the busy port, the golden barley stalk on the left represents our beer brewing industry. It even features the old County Stadium for the Milwaukee Braves. You have to understand, the Braves moved here from Boston in 1953 and this town was INSANELY proud to get a big league team.

I told Howard that I hope Milwaukee gets a big-league baseball team again some day.

The NAVA flag brochure says, “All rules have exceptions…but depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.” The brochure holds up the Colorado state flag (pictured at the top of the post) as an example of a successful departure. It violates the rule of not using type in a flag, but does so elegantly and simply. I’d say that while the folks in Milwaukee departed from the rules with purpose, they also did so with reckless abandon.

Ultimately, flag design and interpretive design have a lot in common, in that they strive to be impactful, accessible, and meaningful. Because he makes the point far better than I could, I leave you with this thought from Howard:

In my opinion the challenges and components of flag design are very related to what we do in interpretation—trying to give relevance and meaning, building connections, tangibles (a piece of cloth) vs. intangibles (love of country, sacrifice, etc). We’ve all seen good flags and bad flags, just like we’ve all seen good interpretive panels and bad interpretive panels. I dare say there are things we can take away from the study of vexillology and apply to interpretation.

Reading Red Rocks

My oldest daughter has become quite the proficient reader, which overall is a pretty good thing. The benefit for me is that my wife can no longer spell things that she doesn’t want our children to understand (which was always difficult for me). It has also made for embarrassing moments for me at the library, where I find myself in conversations with kids wearing skinny jeans in which I’m forced to answer whether the book my daughter is looking for is fiction of non-fiction. The pressure of figuring out whether Pinkalicious is fiction or non-fiction is too much to handle. (My thought process: fiction=not true, non-fiction=not not true, double negative=opposite, horchata=delicious, addition of two negatives=a positive, does anyone see my son spitting water on the wall from the water fountain, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, non-fiction=true.)

I say that to say this: I have always been interested in type but now that my daughter is reading everything, I’m paying more attention than ever. We are surrounded by type and interaction with that type is a big part of our life experiences. Explaining complicated interactions with type to my daughter requires me to conceptualize it myself to help her understand.

Back in November while at NAI’s National Workshop in Las Vegas, Nevada, I had the opportunity to visit Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). I have always been attracted to BLM properties for birding, wild natural areas, and solitude. After time in Vegas, Friend of IBD Don Simons and I were ready for some time in a different type of wilderness.

Prior to arrival we had heard “interpretive rumblings” at the workshop about how awesome the non-personal interpretation was at the site. Up to that point the only “interpretive rumblings” I was familiar with in Vegas related to the rolling of dice and some of the more questionable buffets. Upon arrival and my first interactions with their approach to type, I knew we were in for a treat. Oh yeah, and the site for that interpretation was beautiful. Here are some images of the non-personal approaches to interpretation that really set the stage for the experience.

One of the first things that I noticed was that the majority of the exhibits were located outside of the visitor center—a great practice of getting visitors into the resource with a great backdrop.

The exhibit area (known as Discovery Plaza) is very well organized and from the begining establishes topics, themes, and a color palette that are all echoed (pun intended) through the experience.

Each topical area and section of Earth, Water, Air and Fire have their own color that clearly allow visitors to know where they are in developing a understanding of the resource. The effective use of type literally stands out on each sign.

The colors from the signs extend into concrete stain—a nice extension of the sign and mixture of materials, textures, and platforms.

Color and type in action. The artwork also served as models about the processes being explained which was an amazing representation of a topic.

Bronze sculptures keep you looking for the unexpected and provide opportunities of whimsy. That’s right, I used the word whimsy.

Don being whimsical, I think.

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.

Seeing Red (and Some Green)

A few days ago Paul and I were talking. After several minutes of Paul taunting me about the Phillies’ acquisition of ace pitcher Cliff Lee (underbidding the Yankees), the conversation turned to IBD. I have mentioned before that as baseball fans we tend to get a bit competitive about numbers and statistics. Paul felt compelled to mention that two of his posts (Knowing Your Audience is Ill and Get to Know a Color! Yellow Makes Babies Cry) held the single-day record for hits or visits to the website. He felt compelled to give me an honorable mention by saying that one of my posts (Momemts in Error) held the record for the number of comments made by readers. Paul went on to write a post about how those two posts of his were circulated through social media to audiences beyond interpreters and interpretive designers, and went viral (by our standards) online.

Because I’m competitive, I have decided to write this post on the colors of Christmas and why I feel “ill” when I see anything related to Philadelphia professional sports. It is my hope that I can tap into the same audiences that made Paul’s posts go viral, and that the fine folks at Colour Lovers will feel compelled to share my post with their huge following. Also, I hope that the fine folks (TBD) of Philavania will be filled with dismay at my post and therefore compelled to visit our site to badger me and defend their teams’ honor, while inadvertently giving my post a hit. This will pass the record baton to me and beat Paul at his own game [insert evil laugh].

Here’s the problem: My post hits two days before Christmas on a state and federal holiday for most, as well during a time when many have more important things to do, I hope, than reading or commenting on this blog. This is really no different from any other Thursday; I just have an excuse this time around.

Let’s start with the colors of Christmas, red and green. Most can’t help but recognize this complementary color pairing as being related to the holiday. In fact, when I see designers using green and red, it reminds me of Christmas (even when Paul used them on this promotional piece for the upcoming NAI International Conference in Panama). I also have a difficult separating David Lee Roth from the same piece, but that has more to do with Panama than Christmas. These two colors together do remind me of The Muppets: A Green and Red Christmas album that just happens to have a moving rendition of It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat.

If you are interested in looking at colors and Christmas in a new light, check out the website Christmas By Colour, which offers Christmas cards similar to Pantone color swatches with names like Quality Street, Sprouts, Yellow snow, Mulled wine, End of the Sellotape, Park Lane & Mayfair, Bank Balance, Granny’s Whiskers, After Eights, Bucks Fizz, Pigs in Blankets, and Walking in the Air.

When making design decisions, holiday color meanings should be taken into consideration. Just in case you were wondering, there are specific reasons why red and green are connected to the holiday. For a full description of the meanings behind red and green at Christmas, you can read these eHow articles on the subject. Some of the origins may surprise you.

If I wanted to steal Paul’s thunder for his upcoming post Get to Know a Color! Red and/or Green, I might write something like Wikipedia has on the colors:

The word red comes from the Old English rēad. Further back, the word can be traced to the Proto-Germanic rauthazand the Proto-Indo European root reudh-. In Sanskrit, the word rudhira means red or blood. In the English language, the word red is associated with the color of blood, certain flowers (e.g. roses), and ripe fruits (e.g. apples, cherries). Fire is also strongly connected, as is the sun and the sky at sunset. Healthy light-skinned people are sometimes said to have a “ruddy” complexion (as opposed to appearing pale). After the rise of socialism in the mid-19th century, red was used to describe revolutionary movements.

The word green is closely related to the Old English verb growan, “to grow”. It is used to describe plants or the ocean. Sometimes it can also describe someone who is inexperienced, jealous, or sick. In the United States of America, green is a slang term for money, among other things. Several colloquialisms have derived from these meanings, such as “green around the gills”, a phrase used to describe a person who looks ill.

Of course that really doesn’t help you that much, and Paul does a much better job of making the subjects of color interesting (and by much better I mean somewhat better), so I will leave it up to him. Okay now Colour Lovers is never going to pick up and share this post.

I did notice that the last line of the Wikipedia information mentioned the word ill. The primary colors of the two major Philadelphia teams happen to be red for the Phillies and green for the Eagles (photo courtesy www.the700level.com). This is no coincidence. There are two other professional teams there as well, but no one takes the 76ers or the NBA very seriously, and I can’t remember what that other ice-based professional sport is called. I guess there is no better time to be a Philadelphia sports fan with a felon quarterback leading an otherwise excellent team and a baseball team working hard to be considered a team not buying a World Championship, while buying a World Championship. Now that will make you ill and provides new meaning to those catchy shirts. Okay, that’s not even close enough to make Philavania get fired up. I should have used more curse words.

Okay, so maybe this post was a bit competitive and mildly bitter.

All kidding aside, Paul and I both hope you have a great holiday season. Thank you for being a part of our lives and making our year a memorable one, as well as helping me assume all IBD records.

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.