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.

The NAI 2012 logo: Not literal

It’s been two weeks since the NAI National Workshop in Saint Paul ended, which means one thing: We’re counting down to next year’s workshop in Hampton, Virginia, November 13-17. (Also, we’ve almost gotten the smell of lutefisk out of our hair.)

I lived in Richmond, Virginia, an hour or two down the road from Hampton, for basically the entire 1990s, so I entered into designing the logo for NAI 2012 with a sense of the place. My first thought was that the logo should feature a steady stream of cars hurtling at 70 miles per hour along Interstate 64 and disappearing suddenly and horrifyingly into the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. This idea was borne from repeated and horrifying trips that I used to take across and/or through the 3.5-mile-long Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel between Richmond and the beach. (Thanks to the Virginia Department of Transportation for the horrifying photo I’ve used here.)

There’s a lot going on in Hampton that would make great fodder for a logo. The region is rich in Native American heritage, Colonial history, a contemporary military culture, and an abundance of natural beauty. I briefly flirted with the idea of coming up with a cartoon character like a blue crab in a three-cornered hat, but as a designer, I felt my chief responsibility in coming up with a logo for NAI 2012 was to exercise restraint. (I’ve always said that a logo is the face of an identity system, not the entire body.) It would be all too easy in trying to literally represent all of the noteworthy aspects of the Chesapeake Bay area for the logo to degenerate into a cluttered mess—or worse yet, a collage. (There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than a collage masquerading as a logo.)

So I started with this image of the Chesapeake Bay from a site called My Desktop Wallpapers. Of all the photos I found online of the area, I chose this one because it most closely reflected my memories of the sunlit skies over the bay.

I imported the photo into one of my favorite color-palette websites, Kuler, and it generated the palette pictured above. (I wrote a post about Kuler way back in March 2009 here.)

While I was not trying to literally represent natural and cultural features of the area, I certainly wanted to suggest them. Guided by a theme settled on by our Workshop committee, “Chesapeake Reflections,” I used the palette above and typographic composition to mimic a sunrise over water. I chose to juxtapose a handwriting typeface and a bold, architectural-feeling sans serif to represent the diversity of cultural heritage in the area.

Based on feedback on the first draft, I darkened the colors a little (particularly the yellow-orange of “NAI 2012”) and changed the handwriting typeface to one with more of a historical feeling—as though it could be from a 17th-century explorer’s journal.

One note on the type: I felt that the zero character in this typeface (on the left) was too intrusive, so I changed it to a lower-case O (on the right), which I feel works better and is a little more visually interesting.

As the art director for an organization of individuals who interpret an incredible diversity of nature and culture, I try to strike a balance in everything I do. I try to be careful that our magazine, Legacy, does not focus too heavily on either nature or culture. When I go looking for photos or other visual elements for our publications, I try to be sure that for every photo of a stream or a mountain, that there’s an image that represents the cultural heritage that NAI members interpret. (And vice versa.)

In the end, some people liked what we ended up with for the NAI 2012 logo, and some people wanted it to say more. However, in designing the logo, I decided that trying to fairly represent all of the natural and cultural resources in the Hampton area (or even some nature and some culture) would result in a logo that was too cluttered. Ultimately, it was my responsibility to settle on abstractions rather than literal representations.

That said, I still plan to use images of the great natural and cultural heritage we’ll find in Virginia next year—just not as part of the logo. If you go to the Workshop website right now, you’ll find three photos in the banner at the top. These will change throughout the year. Right now, there are two natural features depicted (seagulls and a horseshoe crab) and one cultural (a boat), but if you keep score between now and next November, I bet you’ll find that the final tally will be pretty close to even.

And when we’re actually in Hampton, I can tell you one place I won’t be going: That scary bridge-tunnel.

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 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.

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.

Obnoxious Use of Color

IBD Management would like to welcome the return of snarky Shea back from his hiatus after several weeks of posts that were slightly confusing, borderline awkward, and weepy.

Well, it is official that Paul and I have gone 10 posts without one that carries the underlying theme of sports. Now that I have separated myself from the touchy-feely Shea (much like the Tickle Me Elmo), there is something that has been bothering me for several weeks and I just have to get it off of my chest—the use of the color orange by the University of Tennessee should be banned.

I have always considered the color orange to be my favorite color. There is something about it that makes me want to buy orange clothing and accessories (primarily sweater vests and bow ties), as well as anything that I don’t already have that comes in orange. I also find myself using it in design work, just because I like looking at it, even though I usually end up changing it to something different.

The strange part of this obsession is that I love the color orange and it really bothers me how it is abused by the University of Tennessee. You would think that since I am drawn to the color orange, then I would be interested in supporting the University of Tennessee. But in reality I have a strong emotional connection against the University of Tennessee and if they really want to be the Volunteers, well, I wish they would volunteer to dial that color down and make the world a better place. I should provide you with some background information of why I carry so much disdain for the University of Tennessee and its obnoxious use of orange.

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and by default most Memphians are fans of either the University of Memphis or the University of Tennessee. (Before Paul makes a comment, I will insert that I am a Yankee fan due to a strong influence of my grandfather and with baseball I really had no choice.) That being said, I attended school at the University of Memphis and found a great outlet of my inner anger and frustration that could be directed towards the University of Tennessee’s sports teams. It was and still is a great outlet. In fact, the single greatest moment in my college life was when the University of Memphis beat the University of Tennessee on the football field at the Liberty Bowl on Saturday, November 9, 1996, by the score of 21-17. Well, that’s the single greatest moment in my college life, next to meeting my wife.

Tennessee-TSo, I love the color orange and hate the way the University of Tennessee abuses it.

So, why am I drawn to the color orange? A lot of thought has been put into the psychology behind how and why people respond to various colors and color palettes. I wish there were a solid foundation of color theory that everyone could agree upon as the definitive expert on what colors mean to individuals. There is no such source, but rather many theories and interpretations. Many are contradictory to others, with others finding common ground. offers this interpretation of my personality based on my connection to the color orange.

Orange: This color of luxury and pleasure appeals to the flamboyant and fun-loving person who likes a lively social round. Orange people may be inclined to dramatize a bit, and people notice them, but they are generally good-natured and popular. They can be a little fickle and vacillating, but on the whole they try hard to be agreeable. Orange is the color of youth, strength, fearlessness, curiosity and restlessness.

I’m not so sure about the “fickle and vacillating” portion of the analysis, but there may be some truth there. This site offers an analysis of most colors and the personality traits that may be associated with specific colors. The problem with this type of analysis is that I find it to be about as valuable as what you would find in a fortune cookie. Maybe that’s what she means by “fickle and vacillating.”

In interpretive design we try to use colors to connect the tangibles to intangibles. Colors are used to help connect visitors to a resource. They can be used to evoke emotion, represent a sense of place, or even be used to create an environmental design that has little impact on the setting where the media is being used. We should spend as much time in the decision-making process of choosing colors as we do creating the theme, writing the text, choosing the typeface, or any other design element.

While I am in this frame of mind, for those of you that enjoy the color combination of pink and green, you are next on my list.