natural variation in greens

Green is not a simple color. Kermit famously felt some existential angst about it. For us humans, there’s a funny split in our experience of green. Most of us can perceive more hues of green than any other color. That’s because the color waves lie right in the comfortable middle of the spectrum we can see. On the other hand, green is the color most likely to not be seen, or not seen well, by people with color blindness. Five to 8% of the population, mostly men, have red-green color blindness, followed by green-blue color blindness.

(Color-blind people, however, are not without their own color superpowers: they can distinguish many more shades of khaki that the rest of us! How cool is that?)

As an avid gardener and overall nature-loving person, I’m drawn to the restfulness of varied hues and shades of greens. While chartreuse, on its own, is attention-getting but nauseating, a little bit mixed in with other hues can be lush and botanical.

While green can give a feeling of health, freshness, growth, and nature, it, like all colors, can also symbolize the flip side of those messages. Money, illness, greed, pollution, bad smells, and, of course, beer-soaked St. Patrick’s Day celebrations can be evoked through the use of green.

Movies and TV shows set in the past, such as The Imitation Game, Downton Abbey, and Boardwalk Empire have sets and costumes drenched in gorgeous green hues. It was a big color of the 1940s but is now often used to give a general sense historicity, or, in the case of Harry Potter, difference and magic.

The recent trend in coloring hair green (as well as blue and pink) underscores the color’s ability to emphasize artificiality and quirkiness. This may mark an end of an era of over-using green to symbolize environmentalism (“Go green!”). It’s often better to try a different and more sophisticated palette to evoke that theme nowadays.





brilliant orange

Autumn is the season of orange. Bursts of bright color are popping up in squashes, tree leaves, and fall holiday decorations. Somehow the marigolds and mums are still hanging in there, fighting off the frost.

In design, orange isn’t confined to seasonal applications, but has to be used carefully. A small amount does a lot of work. It’s like fire: in a controlled environment and at the right time it’s warm, illuminating, inviting, energetic and helpful.

But too much or in the wrong context, it’s overbearing and obnoxious. Some critters and plants have evolved to use orange aposematic (warning) coloration to advertise their toxicity to predators. We use it to create wariness or a sense of emergency too, for example, in construction signage and life preservers. No matter the situation, it’s attention-getting.

Orange has been especially popular in design for the past several years. I was slow to warm to the current trend given my lifelong experience with it. When I was growing up, there were a lot of sharp and chemical orange leftovers from the 60’s hanging around, and the 70’s version was muddy and unappealing. Then in the 90’s there was a weird rag painting era in which many of us—grasping to create some illusion of Tuscany, I think—tried to make our walls look like terra cotta. What we got instead was chaotic, agitating and fake-looking. Not one to shy away from color, I nevertheless I repainted my dining room a calm off-white within a day!

My “Yay!” Award for the best recent use of orange goes to Holland’s national branding. The Netherlands own the color orange in a way no other country owns a particular color. And it’s not even in their flag. Watching the 2014 World Cup, the Dutch team and fans were decked out en masse in orange. It was a particularly nice, energetic shade too, less yellow than their 2014 Winter Olympics speed-skater suits. Orange is a great color for athletic shoes too; it emphasizes movement and looks assertive.

I have to give my “Yuck!” Award for recent use of orange to the new Brooke Shields’ MAC collection. The brand logo is a yellow-orange square, often displayed against a flat gray. It doesn’t play well with some of the pinks and nudes in the makeup itself. The palette has a sort of dated gym-equipment vibe to it. It’s this kind of “miss” that makes me worry the orange trend is on the down swing. When people start slapping the “hot” color on products with abandon, it’s a bad sign.

Because it’s such a powerful color, I’ll keep using orange, but the right shade in the right context. My take-away on orange: it’s hard to live with, but fun to look at. It’s best used in small amounts like a spice, in applications that are transitory, temporary, or in motion.

pale blue


fresh blues

Color trends, even in fashion or interior design, have an impact on graphic design, so I always keep up with the Color of the Year announcements by color-related companies. Paint company Benjamin Moore is calling a pale blue—Breath of Fresh Air—its 2014 color of the year.

Many of Benny Moore’s pics of this color and the rest of their 2014 palette are displayed in a Martha Stewart-like environment. Makes me think of New England beach houses with ketchup-free kids and a blond lab just back from the groomer (prior to rolling in dead fish). In real, functional homes, this color and many other pastels are ethereal, and not entirely livable. It’s sort of like that white-jean trend; it sends a clear message that you don’t interact much with dirt, chocolate, or bike grease. I can’t relate.

However, I do like pale blues for graphic design, because a designer can control and edit what’s on the page or screen better than we can in a home environment. Besides evoking air and sky, these pale hues, even when solid, can look transparent, watery or glassy.

I used this color in the Mighty Chocolate Mini-Donuts corporate identity palette, seen on the back of the business card. Blue is not a color often used with food, and for good reason, as it is perceived as artificial (popsicles, candy, energy drinks) and unfood-like. Even “blue” foods like blueberries and blue corn are closer to an edible purple than true blue or cyan.

But Mighty Chocolate’s owner really liked aqua blues, and though I ask clients to ignore their particular preferences (because it’s irrelevant to the customer, can communicate the wrong association), she also wanted the identity to show off her product’s out-of-the-ordinary qualities. I thought blue could play an accent role, complementing the signature, punchy orange, and also evoking the blue sky one associates with summer fairs where the mini-donuts would be sold. It also sends a subtle message of freshness. Other mini-donuts identities seem to use a lot of yellow, which looks cholesterol-laden and, well, gross in comparison to my client’s fresh palette.

There does seems to be an overall trend toward “lightening up” and freshness on the color horizon.  And I think blues will start to take a bit of the role that greens have had for the past decade in evoking nature or saying “Earth-friendly.”



calming, natural gray

It’s a gray day. A gorgeous, glorious gray day. The autumn leaf colors pop out of the subdued landscape—warm yellows, peachy oranges, and reds that are pinkish and almost watermelony. They appear to be illuminated from within, creating their own light. Besides creating a neutral background that gives other colors heightened prominence, grays themselves are beautiful.

I feel the need to defend gray. There’s a tendency to think of “happy colors” as bright, and gray as drab, and boring. As a color enthusiast, I could never single out one favorite color, but gray is definitely my comfort color. When I see one of my many charcoal gray shirts in the clean laundry basket, ready to wear, it is always my first choice. Wearing it, I feel centered.

What I love about gray is it doesn’t overwhelm. I seem to have light perception that is well suited to the low light of winter and rainy, misty places by the sea. In intense light, I feel absolutely blasted and in need of an escape to a dark Hobbity hole.

Of course, many people do not have this sensitivity to light (called photophobia—a dumb term because it’s physiological, not related to fear), and are more attracted to the bright and sunny. It would be a rare design project for which I would recommend a completely muted, grayed-down  palette.  But grays are a good way to de-emphasize some aspects of the design that need to be lower in a design’s hierarchy, something you notice third, perhaps, rather than first.

Text is a great place to use gray. Often, by default, text is presented in black. No color should be default; every color should be chosen consciously. Gray can give enough contrast, but without the intensity you get with black text on a white or light background. There is often good reason to use contrast in the extreme—black on white—but when there isn’t, a gray should be considered.

Once you lower contrast, however, more judgment is necessary. I once worked in a contemporary art museum whose signage text was the lightest of grays (in about 10 point type), on white walls so there was next-to-no contrast. I think they were going for refined but it came off as exclusive—what, you actually need to read the signage? I was there to analyze audience accessibility, find ways to make more of types of people feel welcome. My very first recommendation was simply to increase the contrast in the signage so people could read it easily and not feel so lost. (Years later, I see they’re now using black on white and in much bigger type. In this case, it’s a better solution.)

Another place the use of grays can go wrong is in solid hues. Heathered, variegated, or textured grays tend to look nicer than large areas of one tone, which can look cold and prison-like. (Every color has opposing associations: gray can be wise, calm, comforting; or inhospitable, sickly or drab, depending on its context.) The importance of color variation is probably why text can look so good in gray—there’s loads of white space in and around the letters. Gray fabrics with a sheen or interesting texture look more appealing than plain weave cotton gray fabric with no color variation—no texture, no color variation, not much to look at. Naturally gray hair, in my opinion, is much more stunning than hair dyed a single solid color, precisely because it is so naturally varied.

Grays can be extremely versatile (a million shades—not fifty—also so many tones, from warm to cool), useful, and beautiful because they are the most neutral of colors. They don’t compete; they communicate quietly. Grays gently guide our attention and give our eyes a needed rest.



playful pinks

Pink and I should win an award for Most Improved Relationship Between a Color and a Person.

I don’t remember a single pink article of clothing or object in my household growing up. It was the 70’s, and avocado, brown, and other earth tones made up the color landscape. Oddly, kids’ clothing seemed to be manufactured only in navy blue, sky blue, or red. My mom sewed most of our clothes for years, so if I had very much wanted pink clothing, I am sure she would have made it. I do remember wearing pink (for the first time?) when I dressed up one year as Wilbur the Pig for Halloween. Otherwise, I associated pink with Barbies, which I considered ridiculously girly.

But pink and black made a splash in the early 80’s as we looked back to the 50’s. Boys in junior high showed up in pink oxford button-downs—with the collars up, of course. Pastels hung around tenaciously for years and, finally, in high school, I bought an icy pink tee-shirt. Turns out, pale pink makes me look really, really ill. I swore off pink at that point, and even vaguely recall saying in my twenties that I would never allow any pink object to enter my home.

Enter: life. I have a garden, and pink flowers are pretty! I have daughters. We chose gender-neutral colors for years, but by preschool, there was no stopping the pinkness, and why would you? To see that much enthusiasm about a color is a lovely thing.

There is something weird about letting a color have too much negative meaning. All colors can convey multiple, opposing meanings. Recently, I nearly fell over when I heard a junior high student say their teacher had told them “black means death.” The meanings and uses of the color black are enough to fill a book. Yes, we sometimes associate it with death, but also with elegance, wealth, professionalism, and many other messages depending on its context.

By the time my girls were in grade school, I found myself wearing more pink—medium salmon to deeper fuchsia tones. While pinks will never be my most flattering colors, I am very drawn to them in small amounts. It’s no surprise to me, looking back, that becoming a mom and getting more comfortable with feelings in general allowed me to loosen that rigid rejection of a color that symbolizes a softer, sweeter side.

Pinks are still usually seen as quite feminine, and are associated with romance, emotions, and even vulnerability (think breast cancer awareness, cupcakes and confections, Victoria’s Secret). But it’s great fun to use it defiantly in a “femininity rocks—deal with it” kind of way (Pink, the singer), and to see it used more diversely by companies like T-Mobile that have no obvious connections to the usual usage.

I use pink quite a bit in my work and always will. For years my logo was bright pink, with dark chocolately brown, a wonderful color combination. It’s like red—attention-getting—but more playful. I heart pink!



ochre, from Old World to natural world

The first time I ever heard the word ochre was in the French countryside, as a teenager. In fact, I had never really seen the color until my host explained the stone walls we were seeing around the village would be described as ochre. The images above show my first views of it. I especially love it with the blue-grays of the Vieux Lyon street where I snapped the pic on the left.

Years later, in the beginning of my illustration adventures, I often began my paintings against an ochre base. I’d begin with a wash of Raw Sienna and glazing liquid to tone my paper. It gave a nice glow to skin tones, and an overall warmth the image.

I tend to have love affairs with certain colors. Ochre appeared often in my life for about a decade. I chose that color for carpeting, and painted the living room a beautiful camel. Other things just came to me already that color: my light wood kitchen floor, discovered under several layers of vinyl; my dog whose unusual mix of ancestors has given her a mango-blond coat.

But now, suddenly, I seem to be moving away from yellow-based colors. Colors have their moments in time, and then they too closely mark an era—we’re just plain tired of seeing them and crave novelty. (Exhibit A: Mauve was widely used in the 80’s. I think we may all need a generation to recover.)

This fall, while finishing up one house-painting project, and not really in need of another, I stopped and looked at my back door. It had originally been white, and I had many years ago painted it an ochre color the paint company had named Golden Retriever. The color had faded a bit with time, and looked grungy and dull. I just couldn’t stand another day of it being that color; it needed to be red, immediately.

(I imagine my kids will write a tell-all when they’re older: “I Couldn’t Stand Another Day of That Door Not Being Red”: Growing up in the Paint Fumes of Our Color-Obsessed Mother.)

So I painted the door red. It took many coats, given that red paints are extremely transparent. But it was worth it. An observer remarked, “Wow, that’s like, ‘Ba-BAM!'” Exactly what a door should say!

Every color has its place. Ochre isn’t right for my door or walls, not anymore. The color is gorgeous in paintings, prairie grasses, and honey. It may even have a place in my design work, for the right situation, though probably in small amounts surrounded by cool tones.