The Mystery of Color
What do you know about color? You probably know some basics of color theory: Colors live in a circle, and they’re made of light. Some are warm, and others cool, etc.
In my years as a designer, I’ve often wondered how we came to take these peculiar ideas for granted. Color is often the most salient element of design and perhaps the least understood. How would you explain “red” to the uninitiated? That very question has befuddled philosophers for generations, and you can be sure that I don’t have the answer. For something banal, it’s terribly mysterious.
The first thing you need to know about color is that it’s bigger than you. It’s an ancient language, older than English or Fortran, and almost every creature on earth speaks it. The colors of a coral snake say “I kill.” The colors of a ripe fruit say “I am sweet and nutritious.” Your ancestors may have learned to see colors more than a hundred million years before their first steps on dry land—and they had their damn priorities straight. Colors are powerful symbols by which you live or die; they’re worth paying attention to.
Culture and technology blew up the ways we relate to our surroundings and each other, but color never lost its influence. We use color to indicate when something serious goes wrong or to decide if you can trust a website with sensitive data: Do you think it’s a coincidence that Facebook echoes the color palette of government uniforms? Would you enter identifying personal information on an obnoxiously orange form?
Many digital products are designed to be used by millions of people of every conceivable demographic and personal background, so usability is not something you take for granted. Designers often enlist color to skip over cultural barriers or cut through the noise of busy interfaces. Color lets digital tools speak to you on a subconscious level, more immediate and intimate than words or iconography. Working at scale, color becomes…