On a Plain

People say I have an accent that can make me hard to understand. I know that I speak plainly. They are just distracted by my southern charm and wit. I have also been accused of writing the way I speak. I do my best to keep contractions that make Paul cringe out of my writin’.  For those who work for the federal government, speaking or writing plainly is now a mandate signed by President Obama. On October 13, 2010, he signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The deadline for implementing portions of the law is fast approaching (July 2011).

When you look through the guidelines provided by the the Plain Language Action and Information Network (or PLAIN, which is not nearly as clever as IBD) you can see many common threads between the recommendations and interpretive writing. (Aside #1: I find it interesting that it took 112 pages for the federal government to outline how to write plainly.) (Aside #2: I also find it interesting that they recommend that you avoid the use of parenthesis in communication.) With topics like “Think about your audience, and organize” you can see the power of using interpretive techniques to improve communication.

There’s a section or two about grammar, nouns, verbs, and all that stuff that Paul loves to write about that I don’t really get but it must be important in some way to writing but I’m sure Paul will get around to writing a post about sometime between now and the next three years. (I wonder if Paul can resist editing this sentence?) I did read the first sentence of that section, which I liked: “Words matter. They are the most basic building blocks of written and spoken communication. Choose your words carefully – be precise and concise.”

The section on writing for the web makes some interesting points that Paul and I have ignored on this blog. This image from the website shows how the human eye tracks on websites. The area shown in red is where the viewer spent the majority of their time.

If we had room in the budget (or any budget at all) and had the exact same study done on IBD, it would be expected that posts such as Monday’s Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph? written by Paul Caputo would yield the following results (keep in mind the area shown in red is where the visitor spent the majority of their time).

Take some time and brush up on your plain writing skills. You may find validity in some of your tried and true interpretive writing techniques.

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.

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 About.com 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.