Design Thoughts

Color 101

Ah, COLOR! Where would we be without it?

Even the colors that we casually label as “black” or “white” have a color cast to them if you look closely. There are MANY different shades of white and black, some warmer, some cooler. And — popular book titles notwithstanding — there are at least 50 shades of gray.

Those who study the physiology of color perception tell us that the human eye is capable of distinguishing roughly 10 million different shades and hues. And although color is a highly subjective thing to describe in words, unless a person is clinically color blind, most of us perceive colors in pretty much the same way.

Still, color as such is an abstraction. Aside from comparisons with natural objects like grass, or sky, specific flowers (dandelion yellow, lilac purple), or items with which we’re all familiar, like “Coca-Cola red,” one does have to ask: how, REALLY, would you describe a color in words? It’s an interesting question.

COLORS IN DESIGN — As a designer I get to make color choices and to creatively combine colors all day long! It’s a pure, almost guilty pleasure. When it comes to colors, I’m like “a kid in a candy store.” The benefit to YOU as my client is that I also use color on a professional basis. I don’t just pick the colors I happen to like personally. Yes, the selection of colors has a subjective component, but in the end I’m choosing colors on your behalf based on knowledge, understanding, goals and objectives, commercial considerations, and years of experience and training.

Colors have an emotional effect on the viewer, and part of my job is to understand the effect that a color choice has on what the design expresses. Most people are familiar with the basics such as the fact that cooler colors (blues, greens) are more “calming,” and appear to “recede,” while warm colors (reds, yellows, oranges) are more “energetic,” and appear to be “closer” to the viewer than neutral or cooler colors. Color consultants — especially those allied to the building and interior decorating business — are also quite familiar with the emotional impact and effects of color in the environment. The hues of pink and orange we see combined in the branding of a famous purveyor of coffee and donuts were actually revealed by researchers to have the effect of stimulating the appetite, hence their selection for that brand. Of course culture is also a factor in how colors affect the viewer. All this tells us that color choices are neither arbitrary nor non-influential when it comes to design.

COLOR PERCEPTION AND MEDIA — One important aspect of color has to do with the different ways in which colors are presented to the eye. Sometimes it helps my clients to understand the design process if they’re more familiar with these methods of presenting color. To simplify and list them in brief, these consist of what are termed the “colorspaces” of CMYK (or process), “Spot,” (such as PMS) and RGB (pixels on digital devices).

Not all colors can be created equally by these various methods. The range of possible colors that can be presented by each of these methods is often referred to as their color “gamut,” which is basically the range of colors that are possible in each medium. These different colorspaces are capable of presenting different ranges of colors.


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