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.