Understanding Color, Part 1

Let’s open up the ol’ imagination for a little while. I want you to go on a few small journeys with me.

Take a deep, invigorating breath and fill your nose with the woody scent of green pine needles and thick tree bark. Float your fingers through moist, early morning fog so thick you’d swear you just left trails in the low hanging clouds behind your hand. Flaming logs snap and pop in the fireplace of the warm cabin behind you; its invitation is almost impossible to resist. There’s a cozy quilt made of alternating blue hues, a steaming cup of tea that smells like honey, and an open book waiting in a window nook. Every small piece forms a whole.

Acrid exhaust stings your nose. There’s the honk of a car horn. Another one. A chorus of impatience. From the top of the sparkling skyscrapers looming above your head you must look like a twitchy, bustling ant crawling through the crack in a sidewalk. Storefronts are adorned with a kaleidoscope of cherry-colored dollar amounts for pizza slices, cantaloupe banners framing chic silk dresses, pearlescent silver pillows rest on a cream couch inside a furniture store you’ll never enter. You hurry across the street, hoping to beat the signal ticking down to zero, and catch the pungent garlic and deep tomato scent of your favorite Indian restaurant. It all comes together.

It’s like diamonds are floating on the water in front of you. Multitudes of tiny rocks form the sand running between your toes. They’re almost too warm to bear. To your right is a clank-clank-clank, a ratchet, a roller coaster car painted like a sleek red box on fire ascending to its peak. To your left, blue striped umbrellas, towels printed with superheroes and cats, bikinis and trunks of every color and varying amount of visible skin imaginable. The salt in the air is strong enough that you may as well have dipped your tongue in the water. You shield your eyes and spy on surfers in the distance. Every bit is like a puzzle piece.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Sean, what the heck do surfers have to do with colors?” I assure you I didn’t mess up the title of this post. Get ready for those sentences about the mountains, the city, and the beach to turn into an analogy about the use and effectiveness of color.

It takes a massive army of trees to form a forest and you are the result of millions of years of evolution, concerted upbringing, and your daily experiences. Likewise, those scenes above are not about single things. They’re a collection of sensory items that form a place, and with that place, an emotional attachment to it. Those singular items aren’t so easy to pick out. It takes a concerted effort to see that those green pine needles are an important part of why the mountain scene feels so cozy.

Emotion is about a subtle grouping of many elements that combine to create a reaction. Color itself is a tool that may be used to inspire a feeling (or many feelings). One reason why those green pine needles, the red price tags, and the blue striped umbrellas feel so tangible is because of their color. When it comes to design work of any sort, color is one of the most critical ingredients for success.

Starting in on a website, a logo, a lunchtime meal, or practically anything can feel like a daunting task. People decide whether or not they like a product in such a short time and 90% of that reaction is based on color. You’ve only got so much time to make a first impression with a viewer, so you need to make it count. You want to create something that’ll make people stop and appreciate all the work you’ve done, but how do you get from Point A to Point Z?

Throw some color on it. Okay, it’s not quite as simple as that. Slopping on a mishmash of colors isn’t going to be appealing to anyone and it’ll be discouraging to you. But an intentional and clever use of colors that go well together? Now you’re onto something. Remember, there’s a lot of control you can wield when designing something. You can draw people in with color, delight them with color, create emotion with color.

In other words, think like He-Man:

I’ve been talking about emotions for a while now, so let’s get to what different colors can actually do to a person.

Red comes in with a punch. It’s not content to just sit around and focus only on itself. This is a color that will run up to your face and shout, “You need to pay attention to me. I am important.” Take a look around you and find something that’s the color red. Chances are whatever you see will be full of passion, either in energy or in aggression.

With such a powerful meaning behind it, red shouldn’t be used too much. An excess of red can be an assault on the eyes and is sure to cause the muscles in a person’s neck and shoulders to tighten up. How can a person relax when all they’re seeing is fire, excitement, or war?

Don’t be afraid of red, though. There’s wonderful energy in it. Use it in to attract attention and make a statement and you’ll have a remarkable tool at your disposal.

Orange took a look at red and said, “Whoa buddy, take it down a notch. I like what you’ve got going, but why are you so fierce? Let’s relax for a while.” If you’re looking for something that has the same sort of vitality as red, but without the same severity, then orange is the way to go.

There’s a playfulness in orange that other colors don’t have. It’s a good accent color, useful in putting emphasis on an aspect of your work to which you want to draw attention. If you’ve got a brand or an item that feels filled with youth or playfulness, then consider orange as a prominent color choice.

Oh, yellow. If there was ever a more two-faced color, I don’t know what it could be. Yellow is bright; it’s sunny. Yellow and happiness go hand in hand. However, look at it from another angle and suddenly it’s blaring a warning out at your face. On the other hand, you couldn’t do better at inducing anxiety into a viewer than by filling your work with bright yellow.

If it’s not closely associated with the color of your brand (Post-it notes, for example), then take caution and use it sparingly. Stick closer to the lighter and darker ends of the yellow spectrum. Light yellow feels like a nice summer day; darker yellow imparts a sense of importance and age.

Green is able to weather all storms. Nothing can knock it down, and who would want to? It represents the natural world, where everything originated from. There’s hardly a more firm and stable color on the entire spectrum. Look at the acronym for the rainbow color spectrum, ROYGBIV: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Green’s smack dab in the middle — a bridge between the warm end and the cool end of the color spectrum.

If you’re looking for something to give the impression of the outdoors or a natural quality, then green is your color. It’s the embodiment of the world outside your window. As a color that’s shifting away from the somewhat harsher warm end of the spectrum, green is useful as an accent color that can demand attention in a nice way.

When you see the words ”tranquil,” “serene,” and “relaxing,” what color pools into your mind like a small stream? If you’re anything like me, pleasant = blue. It’s like a friendly hug from a loved one. There’s a sense of security and trust associated with blue. This color is an invitation into the party of whatever you’re designing and it’s one that many will RSVP to.

Blue is such a handy and adaptive color that you may find it suits whatever purpose you need. Lighter shades can give the impression of freedom and openness, much like the vast sky above you. Darker shades give the impression of trust and is a perfect choice for those looking to appear professional, without feeling stuffy.

It’s been a common understanding that the color purple is tied to royalty and for good reason — it’s hard not to be filled with a sense of luxury and importance when purple is thrown into the mix. If you’re looking for a way to quickly set yourself above the rest, then purple is a classic method of getting there.

Purple doesn’t just have to be for kings, queens, and tabloid stars. A nice light purple can add a touch of springtime into your mix. Who doesn’t see a bed of lavender and immediately think of blooming energy? Want to give an air of romance? Turn down the lights with a dark, seductive shade.

Using pink is like taking the first step out onto a towering tightrope. It has the potential to be enthralling, but get overly confident with it and you’re likely to tip over the side. A popular color for targeting female audiences, pink does carry a strong initial interpretation with it. However, its playful charm can appeal to everyone if used well.

If you’ve got a playful cupcake shop, then using pink should be step number one in designing your product. It’s a color that seems to be imbued with a sugary sweetness. Don’t forget about its usefulness in promoting a loving feeling. Paired with red and purple, pink is a showstopper.

Ah, stately brown. You’ve always been the sturdy and dependable trunk to the more expressive green leaves above you. Brown takes some talent to wield properly and doesn’t fit in well with some of the more dramatic colors listed above. It does feel rustic and can give a sense of old-world dependability.

This is not a color widely used in web design, but that doesn’t mean it should be shuffled off into a trash pile somewhere. If you’re working with a seasoned lawyer of unfailing repute or an up-and-coming woodworking service, then consider using brown as a subtle background or accent color.

Ooh, black, you’re so edgy and mysterious. Looking at you makes everyone wonder, “What’s hiding there? What’s in store for me now?” Because black is so cool, it doesn’t respond. It’s just there, daring anyone who sees it to delve further and learn more about what you’ve got going on.

Black is a powerful color, full of punch and vigor. As such, it’s most often used in a very sparing manner. Text is the most common use of the color, but it can be wielded in other ways with great effect. The contrast it helps create shows a confidence that other colors don’t have.

Coming in at the total opposite side of the spectrum from black is the clean and, some would say, sterile white. White is the powerhouse of the color spectrum — it goes with just about anything and everything. It can be used to guide the eye to elements or take colors juxtaposed with it and make them pop.

White is so ubiquitous that it’s not often considered how cold it can be. To avoid a feeling of sterility, soften up the white a bit and turn it into more of an ivory or cream. This will tone down the harsh effect white can have on the eyes and appear more comforting.

Gray? What? That nothing color that can’t seem to decide if it wants to be black or white? Pfft, gray is awesome. As a nice middle ground between the starkness of white and black, it can act as a softening color. It can impart gloom or a professional air.

Play around with gray a bit. Vary its intensity to see how it can grab the attention. If black is too black, go with a dark gray. Your white too white? Go with a light gray. It can be used to make something feel important and less playful. There’s a lot of versatility in this subtle color.

Beige. Has there ever been a more blah color than this one? I mean, not really. If brown isn’t going to shake the world, then making brown less brown isn’t going to really do it either. However, beige does have its uses. It can act as an enhancement to other colors.

Because beige doesn’t stand out on its own, it can be used as a complement to the rest of your design. If white is too much for you, then toss a bit of beige in there and watch the colors around it come alive. Take care to not put it next to anything that would clash too strongly with it. Or don’t use it at all. Nobody would think less of you for that.

This will do it for part one of my Understanding Color series. Part two will cover ways to combine these colors to create pleasing and eye-catching combinations.

This is where your color favorite color will turn into a strong tool you can use to brand yourself or others. We’re going to work on helping you make a statement with a color palette using simple tools that have great depth to them.

See you there.

Always chasing that cozy feeling of being snuggled under a heap of warm blankets in a cold room. Also trying to find cats to pet 😻

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