Humanity’s relationship with color goes back as far as humanity itself does, and we have evolved a rich, complex language to express it.
Considering this long history, one might think that it’s all been done; there are no more breakthroughs to be had. The surprising truth is that our use of color — and even the colors themselves — continue to evolve, right up to the present day.
The “Ugliest” Color
Normally designers want attractive colors, to draw the eye and conjure good associations. But back in 2012, the Australian government wanted to find the least appealing color possible. The purpose: they were looking for the perfect color for packaging of tobacco products.
The color has variously been described by researchers as “dirty,” “tar,” and “death.” Since the Australian rollout, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France have all passed “plain packaging” laws. Instead of recognizable brand colors and images, cigarette packaging must now discourage purchase. Not only with the Ugliest Color, but also health advisories and disturbing images.
Blacker Than Black
Strictly speaking, black is the absence of color. But scientists have found a way to take this to the next level!
The darkest material known to man, Vantablack was created by the British company Surrey NanoSystems. Their original goal was to eliminate stray light in satellites and telescopes. To that end, they developed a process to spray out incredibly delicate carbon nanotubes. These are specifically engineered to trap light and prevent it from bouncing back to the eyes of an observer.
Naturally, “blacker than black” got the attention of artists and the like, folks hoping to get in on the phenomenon. But for now, Vantablack has only limited applications. The stuff is like moth’s wings — the lightest touch can wreck everything.
There’s also the small matter of cost; because of the various processes and materials that go into creating the effect, Vantablack coating is literally more expensive than gold or diamonds.
The New Blue
Much easier to come by is a new shade of blue. Discovered by accident in 2009 at Oregon State University by the team of Professor Mas Subramanian, the new shade was dubbed YInMn blue, after its chemical composition.
The color is about the bluest blue imaginable, and quickly caught the attention of folks involved in the business of color. Crayola crayons will be introducing a new crayon with this color — if they can just figure out a catchier name.
What Color Is the Sky in Your World
It’s a humorous question, but in fact, knowing the color of the sky gives one a hint as to atmospheric conditions. That’s why the Cyanometer has existed since the late 1700s.
The ring follows the observation that the color of the sky changes depending on the particle density (essentially, moisture) of the air. The device turned out to be only of limited utility, but it’s an interesting observation nevertheless, and serves as a small example of how color can inform our understanding or perception of the world.
Can You See Me Now
Taillights on cars are legally required to be an exact, specific shade of red. The lights on emergency vehicles are calculated to be visible — and recognizable — at considerable distances. Bright colors are the de facto standard for activities like bike riding and skiing, where being seen can be a life-or-death matter.
But it’s not just about being “bright.” Visibility is literally about engaging the eyeballs — and because of their wavelength, some colors do this better than all the others. This wavelength is precisely the goal for Vollebak’s Nano Meter 555 Midlayer, a sports top that also includes reflective “motion capture markers” that will shine in a near-total absence of light.
While one might reasonably expect this to be a part of the next glam-rock revival, the actual intention of the jersey is to make it easier to find lost hikers or skiers, or even just track mountaineers on their journeys.
They’re Not All Winners
Vollebak has made other forays into color theory, and this one is actually kind of interesting. They made a pink hoodie, because of a Nixon-era theory that a certain shade of pink was especially soothing.
Variously known as “Drunk Tank Pink” and “Baker-Miller pink,” this color was theorized in the late 1960s as having a calming effect. Eventually, experiments were conducted in various facilities, including a couple of jail-type environments, to see whether detainees did in fact cool down.
The answer: “Sort of.” Researchers found that exposure to this color does have a soothing effect — for about 10–15 minutes, after which they observed a return (and sometimes increase) of aggression and agitation.
The mixed reviews didn’t stop the theory from resurfacing in the early ’90s, when it was revealed that two college football teams had caught wind of the theory, and ran their own experiment. The teams decided to redecorate the locker rooms and showers for their visiting opponents.
Whether or not they truly gained an edge in the games that followed, game officials quickly stepped in. They couldn’t ban the color outright, but they did rule that the locker rooms for both teams had to be the same colors.
Theory vs. Reality
In the real world, color tends to be a more subtle effect.
Sure, someone might find a “magic hue” that tricks people’s minds into feeling dizzy or sleepy. Sure, we take advantage of certain colors for their visibility. Sure, it’s common knowledge that if you paint a room in pale, bright colors, the room “feels” bigger. But most people still know how big the room is.
In reality as in design, color often works best as an accent. A single color is rarely your whole message, and you don’t want to overwhelm with an excess of one strong color. Instead, colors are carefully selected and applied to accentuate your true message.
Rigney Graphics is a Pasadena graphic arts company that can help you create an impact with design and marketing solutions for print and web — without painting everything pink.