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.