Mental Palette: A Color Study

Mental Palette: A Color Study
in: Design

Color. Some prefer its absence and some want to splash it all over the place, but however you want to look at it, color is one element that designers are constantly thinking about. Color can describe a mood, a tone, a direction, an emphasis, and many other aspects of daily life. This article will cover the use of color as inspiration, how I feel about it as a designer/developer and hopefully I can introduce a few new concepts about this ancient spectrum of knowledge we all know as color.

Talking about color with a designer could be compared to talking shop with a gearhead, talking Shakespeare with a theater-buff, or even talking hobbit culture with a die hard Tolkien fan. What this means, is that it evokes passion and that it is most certainly subjective. This isn’t to say that you can’t make poor decisions on the use of color, just like you can’t say there aren’t bad actors out there. But when using color to achieve your design goals, there will never be a time where a single human’s opinion of that usage is not different from another person’s opinion. Why does color affect everyone differently? Some people theorize that it might be our background or culture. It might be due to education, physical surroundings or even our emotions. Subjective as it may be, the theory of color is also a science. Certain colors have been proven to kindle a specific type of emotion in people.

RED (#FF0000) (255, 0, 0) (primary)

The color red in my opinion is one of the most powerful colors out there. Although this list could go on for days, some of the more common things red can be identified with are love, passion, danger, courage, death or sexuality. It can also be use to convey importance like the red carpet at celebrity events or warning labels on street signs and stoplights. In China, red is worn by brides on their wedding day as it is their color of happiness. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance when clothing represented the wearer’s social status, red was word by nobility.

ORANGE (#FF7F00) (255, 127, 0) (secondary)

Obviously the word orange is derived from the ever popular orange fruit. Oranges, pumpkins, sweet potatoes carrots and autumn leaves all get their vivid orange color from carotenes. Carotenes are a type of photosynthetic pigment that convert light and energy that plants absorb from sunlight during photosynthesis. That shows you how the color orange inherits its association with ideas like freshness, vitality, and sunlight, but you might also find it grouped in with danger, fire, and warning symbols like its close cousin, the color Red.

YELLOW (#FFFF00) (255, 255, 0) (primary)

Yellow is the bright, happy, sunshiney color of happiness, gold, wealth, butter and fresh sour lemons in the summertime. In it’s purest form, yellow can make you feel more awake and energized just by looking at it. The word yellow has the same Indo-European base “gʰel-” (pronounced yell), which means bright and shining and also to cry out. In prehistoric time periods, cavemen used yellow paint or yellow ochre pigment made from clay to make some of the first art ever created. Apart from all of the good things yellow represents like optimism, reason and pleasure, it is also identified with jealousy, envy, and betrayal. As always, colors differ in meaning from one culture to another. For example in Egypt, yellow is the color for mourning and in India is a color used by merchants.

GREEN (#009B00) (0, 255, 0) (secondary)

Green means so many things to us in modern day culture. Today the hottest green topic is the social movement called The Go Green Campaign for environmental rights. It fights for the overall health of the environment and for awareness of how our actions like choosing to reuse, recycle, and replenish our natural resources can greatly affect the planet. This said, green is the color that represents life, growth, and nature. Some other elements that green can inspire are wealth, envy, and sometimes a lack of experience. In design, lighter greens are often to evoke vibrancy and strength while darker greens can induce feelings of affluence and prosperity.

BLUE (#0000FF) (0, 0, 255) (primary)

Blue has a very long luxurious history. Its been used for its deep, rich, decorative qualities since ancient times. Blue can portray a large variety of ideas and emotions depending on the hue and shade. Lighter blues often give a sense of calm and relaxation, while a darker blue gives a feeling of strength and importance. Officers, military, and government officials often use blue as a sign of responsibility and authority. Made famous by singing “The Blues”, musicians like Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan would also tell you that blue can be a symbol for sadness.

Usually color is thought of as a descriptive term itself. For instance, “The sky is so blue today.” But to stretch this concept a bit further, have you ever thought to describe the color or group of colors working together? A few of these descriptive words might be vintage, global, or exotic. Now here is why I find this concept interesting. Almost every person has what I like to call a “mental palette. My mental pallet has preconceived ideas as to what the word vintage might mean through color. Another person might have a completely different pairing. Here are examples of a few different people in our office, and their take on the following descriptive terms. ( Vintage :: Frigid :: Tropical :: Sophisticated :: Global )

Color Study

Be inspired by color. Instead of being inspired by something like a sunset or an industrial city street and coming up with colors that relate to it, let the color inspire you to discover other possibilities. Look at a group of swatches (there are so many websites out there dedicated to color and all those who live for it) and ask yourself these questions: “How do these colors as a unit, make me feel?” “What do these colors working together remind me of?” Now I’m not saying this is a full proof way to start a Photoshop mockup of anything, but I like to think of it as working backwards to make the forwards way of thinking stronger. This is like when learning to dribble a basketball. If you practice dribbling while walking backwards and keeping control, you will inevitably be much better when you go back to moving forward again. You can use this color exercise as a way to open your mind and brainstorm to come up with deeper and more moving combinations later in your creative process.

My goal for this article was to have you, the reader, look at color in a few new and different ways and possibly learn a little bit about yourself and what your own personal mental pallet might be like. This mysterious, scientific, magical, exquisitely aesthetic idea we all know as color has been here since the beginning of days and will continue on existing throughout wars, famine, global warming and possibly a zombie-ridden apocalypse. This is just one more reason to continue exploring it’s boundaries and loving every new concept it throws at us. And besides… it’s pretty.

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