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! 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

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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 http://colorschemedesigner.com.

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.

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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.