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:



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.

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! Red

My six-year-old son Joel recently started wearing the Philadelphia Phillies clothing I’ve been buying him since he was born. I know that Joel resents the Phillies because they’re frequently on TV when he’d rather be watching Spongebob Squarepants, so I asked him about it. I figured he had decided to embrace the Phillies out of affection for his father or a desire to relate to his extended family, much of which is in Philadelphia. The actual reason is much simpler than that: after stints with green, yellow, and blue, red is now Joel’s favorite color.

This got me to thinking about how and why people relate to certain colors. This also made me hungry, because it turns out that red is an appetite stimulant, which may explain why there are so many fat Phillies fans.

Anyway, welcome to the first installment of “Get to Know a Color!” Every now and again in the coming months, we’ll delve into the meanings, associations, and usage of a specific color. (To paraphrase Buster Bluth, as I have done before, this party is going to be off the hook.)

The human eye can perceive roughly 10 million colors, so if I do one a week, I’ll be done in the year 194,317, or shortly before the Earth is swallowed up by the sun. To narrow it down a bit, Isaac Newton, who devised the first color wheel in 1666, identified seven pure spectral colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Since indigo and violet are both essentially purple, we can narrow that to six. Given that primary season just ended in politics, we’ll start with red. (Get it? Because it’s a primary color! Now we’re having fun.)

First, a note about creating meaning with color: The color wheel is your friend. We encourage designers to select a color palette using the color wheel. Colors that oppose each other on the color wheel—blue and orange, yellow and purple, or green and red—are complements. Used together, they create a bold statement. Colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel, like green and blue or orange and red, are analogous. They create a softer, subtle visual presence. Selecting colors carefully based on a specific kind of color palette will reinforce your message.

Look up color psychology online and you’ll find a lot of sweeping statements about specific colors. An article about color psychology on the website infoplease says this about the color red:

The most emotionally intense color, red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. It is also the color of love. Red clothing gets noticed and makes the wearer appear heavier. Since it is an extreme color, red clothing might not help people in negotiations or confrontations. Red cars are popular targets for thieves. In decorating, red is usually used as an accent. Decorators say that red furniture should be perfect since it will attract attention.

One important thing to keep in mind when you read this sort of thing is that these meanings vary across cultures. For instance, in China, red is associated with good luck, but in South Africa, it’s associated with mourning. If you’re on Wall Street, the last thing you want to be is in the red. In Jamaica, if you’re red, it means that you’re drunk. In Germany, if you had 99 balloons, they would definitely be red.

Another factor to keep in mind is that sometimes these generalizations can be contradictory. Red is associated with love and warm emotions, but it is also associated with danger and alarm. In the United States, red is the color of the Republican party; globally, it’s associated with communism.

Whatever the associations, red is the most intense color on the color wheel. According to Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color, the human eye sees colors as electromagnetic radiation measured in nanometers. Of all the colors, red has the longest wavelengths, followed by orange and yellow. (For more on this, have a look at “The Physics of Color” on the website Colors on the Web.) This is why, if we were at a really awesome party and you got us talking about color, you’d hear us say that warm colors advance and cool colors recede.

Because red is so intense, it is used to attract attention. In print, it’s frequently used as a highlight color. Online, it should be used sparingly because it’s tough on the eyes in large quantities on screen (not sure how Netflix gets away with what they do). In short, red is to color what bolding is to type, or what habanero chilis are to dinner (evidently, I’m still hungry). It’s a powerful tool that should be used carefully.

Color Scheme Designer


I’ve written in the past about two online resources that allow users to generate color palettes based on photographs: Kuler and the DeGraeve Color Palette Generator. Friend of IBD Brian Trosko turned us on to another way of generating color palettes online called Color Scheme Designer, found at

This free site uses the color wheel to generate color palettes based on six different schemes, as simple as monochromatic and complementary or as complex as accented analogic. It allows users to choose a primary hue by spinning a cursor around the wheel, then adjust the resulting scheme based on contrast or saturation. It generates a list of web codes for colors, which can be plugged into any page layout, image editing, or vector art software.

I’m sure this is exactly what Isaac Newton had in mind when he devised the first color wheel in 1666.

Picture-2 Picture-3

To test out your color scheme, the site generates light and dark sample pages, all of which feature an eerie, blurry female figure looking disapprovingly at you for letting the computer do your work for you. (You can’t see her face, but I know what she’s thinking.)

As with all decisions, your color choices should be meaningful and appropriate to your site or organization, so we don’t encourage you to rely too heavily on this sort of thing. But it’s interesting to fiddle around on this site to explore the effects and impacts of different types of color palettes.

“I Hate the Grid”

I recently presented a two-day training workshop with our co-author Lisa Brochu. The participants were interpreters with a city parks department, nondesigners responsible for creating nonpersonal media. When I do these presentations, I talk primarily about choosing meaningful colors and typefaces, working with type and images, and using a grid to achieve a clean and organized composition.

As we worked on an exercise related to composition, I suggested to one participant that she move an item to reinforce her grid. The woman (who had identified herself as an artist* early in the class) said, “I hate the grid!” I laughed, because I certainly respect that some new designers feel constrained by using a grid, especially people who consider themselves artists and rely on intuitive decisions.

Still, I stand by the grid as a simple and effective way to organize information and create a consistent look and feel for compositions, from a single sign to a 200-page publication. And good designers find a way to make the grid work to their benefit.

Every rule designers impose on themselves, such as using two typefaces or working within a certain color palette, is meant to limit decisions so that compositions don’t become jumbled, meaningless messes. The grid is just like these other rules. Placing elements in a composition based upon “what feels good” rather than using a grid is like choosing whatever typeface (or however many typefaces) on a whim from page to page within a publication. It’s like choosing colors with no regard for a predetermined, meaningful color palette. Like these other rules, the grid helps us create consistent, accessible, clean compositions.

*Check back soon for more on the difference between fine art and graphic design.