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, “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.

4 thoughts on “Get to Know a Color! Purple is a Snooty Misfit

  1. Purple is cool. I even have a purple shirt, a purple Sharpie pen and a purple Fisher Space Pen. Uh-oh, I have a feeling Shea is going to be after that Space Pen now.

    I was always under the impression that purple was a symbol of power, but that had nothing to do with my reasons for always liking purple. I just always thought purple was cool.

    It has always been good enough for the Minnesota Vikings and on many occasions for the LA Lakers. Though the Lakers keep changing their uniform colors. I think it is to just sell more stuff. Paul called the Los Angeles Lakers “extra-annoying.” I wonder what is behind that thought? I wonder if I should be adding “extra-annoying” to my hatred of the No Good-Stinkin’ Yankees? Okay, everyone say it with me, “The extra-annoying No Good-Stinkin’ Yankees!” Just sort of rolls off the tongue like it was meant to be.

    I must agree with Paul, growing up, Harold and the Purple Crayon was one of my all-time-favorite books. It even made its way on to TV and DVD’s. There is even a special 50th Anniversary edition of Crockett Johnson’s classic literary creation available and there were seven subsequent adventures written that starred Harold.

    I think when we get our Nerd Herd caps or t-shirts, maybe we need a little purple on them somewhere.

  2. My alma mater, Clemson, is known for the football team wearing their purple pants for really important games. Makes most of the guys look like grapes.

  3. Have you forgotten purple’s provocative nature? It was in 1999 when Jerry Falwell outed Tinky Winky on Teletubbies, claiming, among other things, “He is purple — the gay pride color…”
    I didn’t even know that purple had a sexual identity.

  4. I seem to remember reading that purple was the colour of royalty because the dye used to produce it on cloth was made from snail shells and was really, really expensive, hence out of the reach of the hoi polloi. Although that might have been blue, but as you need blue to make purple, it would still hold, right?

    If only there were a fast and easy way to look this up. Something like Wikipedia, say. Wait a minute…

    “In nature the snails use the secretion as part of their predatory behaviour and as an antimicrobial lining on egg masses.[7][8] The snail also secretes this substance when it is poked or physically attacked by humans. Therefore the dye can be collected either by “milking” the snails, which is more labour intensive but is a renewable resource, or by collecting and then crushing the snails completely, which is destructive. David Jacoby remarks[9] that “twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to color only the trim of a single garment.”

    So wearing purple was like drinking Cristal, or whatever all the wealthy people are doing these days.

    Anglican bishops wear purple, too, as it is is the liturgical colour of the Easter season.

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