New adventures in colour

Be it eye-poppingly vibrant or high-contrast monochrome, the design world's use of colour is shaping our reactions to the world around us more than ever. Mark Penfold discovers how.

Colour. The world as we see it is made of the stuff, and always has been. Even prehistoric peoples had views on the relative merits of red and yellow ochre in a subterranean setting. So, millennia later, the fact that designers and illustrators are still able to cheer, inspire and even shock us with something this familiar is amazing.

Happily, designers and artists are once again tinkering with this most fundamental of building blocks, and the results are both dramatic and seductive in equal measure. Whether their experiments result in what looks like an explosion in a hair dye factory or geometry-emitting blueshifted colour signals, the one thing they all agree on is that colour is personal.

Colourful personalities
"Colour is emotion. Colour is life. Humans are wired to respond to colour." Artist and designer Eli Carrico's observations hit the nail on the head. Colour gets under your skin in ways that are hard - but not impossible - to explain. Designer Slawek Michalt is willing to have a stab at it.

"I grew up among the Polish poster art of the '70s," Michalt explains. "These works were massively colourful. But it wasn't until my studies that I noticed how much they had affected me." And, as just a couple of seconds on Michalt's website will tell you, those images went deep.

What Michalt has noticed is that we each have a very personal set of colour responses which we keep alongside our 'red means danger' standard-issue reactions. What makes for successful design is the ability to marry this personal world up to visual culture at large in a way that people can relate to somehow. There is a danger, though - too personal and nobody is going to hire you; not personal enough and you'll be working for 'the man'.

Eli Carrico illustrates this last point perfectly, his work being built on strong, sometimes challenging, use of colour. "Generally," he says, "my sense of colour either hinders my pitches or greatly enhances [their chances of] selection. It is a bi-polar reaction - rarely do I get middle-of-the-road comments." Eli turns those colour-prompted emotional responses up to 11, and not everyone can handle that.

Gently gently
Though it has emotional power, colour doesn't have to be used as a blunt instrument to be effective. "I enjoy the way colour can communicate very sophisticated ideas," says British illustrator Sam Green, in reaction to the definite colour explosion going on at the moment. Bright, intense colour palettes are everywhere. "I like that very much," Green continues, "but I also appreciate illustration when there is a restricted palette." Using just one colour to dominate an image can have a hypnotically powerful effect.

As the muted refinement of Istvn Szugyiczky's work demonstrates, the fewer colours you use, the more important each colour becomes. And once you've removed all the colours you have just tone and value, which tell a tale all their own. Szugyiczky is at one end of the colour-use spectrum - for him it's contrast that calls the shots. "I never choose colours randomly," he says. "Every tone must have a meaning that supports a formerly defined message." Oddly, the restraint on show in Szugyiczky's work does make the viewer lust for something bright and frivolous. It's like a sauna for the mind.

Even Eli Carrico, at the other end of the colour-usage spectrum, acknowledges the importance of relative values. Dropping his work into greyscale to evaluate its tonal qualities, he says, "ensures that even when all the saturation is gone, there are significant levels of contrast for the eye to digest." Colour modulates the message but value will determine its volume.

Somewhere in-between, Jen Stark has been conducting experiments, creating gradients then playing with the whole spectrum of 'colours' within a single colour. "Sometimes its fun to have restrictions," she says. "It makes you think a little more." Stark's paper sculptures demonstrate the power of this technique when twinned with a feel for geometry, which is a natural ally of pure colour.

Theory v instinct
Szugyiczky may turn his nose up at randomness, but Pedro Vilas-Boas - who's been known to use ActionScript to create entirely random palettes - certainly doesn't. Between Vilas- Boas and Szugyiczky there's a whole spectrum of approaches to colour picking. The process is very particular to both the artist and the job in hand but, by and large, intuition is the deciding factor.

So what part does colour theory play? New York-based illustrator Todd Alan Breland observes that colour theory is naturally embedded in most artists, so the question becomes whether or not to follow that theory. "Most of the time," says Breland, "colour for me is decided on a whim. I don't set up parameters when I'm working but there is a basic formula of what looks good together."

That basic formula varies from person to person. Chrissie Abbott avoids making her work too dark or morose, she says, "not because I am always Pollyanna-style happy, but I'd rather project something positive into the world than something depressing."

For Sam Green, however, the process is both nuanced and abstract. There is, Green observes, a fundamental problem relating to individuals' varying attitudes to colour: "I am much more interested in the emotive qualities of colour and, often, clients are not - and I forget this sometimes." What you prefer may not be what works best for your brief. And it's worth remembering that, not infrequently, being right doesn't necessarily mean getting paid.

Emotion engine
It can't be denied that colour can be used to cleverly manipulate emotions. Eli Carrico brings up the interesting case of the use of purple during the 2008 US Presidential elections. In the US, a conservative stance is generally represented by the colour red, with the liberal perspective being symbolised by the colour blue. "In a subtle appeal to voters, the tie colours of the candidates and media was often purple," notes Carrico. Pantone's colour for that year was also an iris shade of purple.

For Chrissie Abbott, purple - which is also reckoned to be a 'spiritual' colour - does little more than remind her of Prince. This is an example of the personal clashing with our supposedly pre-ordained emotional triggers, and it's exactly the kind of thing that feeds the layered meanings attached to colour use in commercial art. It's something of a digression from Abbott's Prince fixation, but the current vibrancy in design, the willingness to try unusual colour palettes out, could feasibly be a reaction to the increase in corporate 'ownership' of colour. Eli Carrico rolls his eyes at this subject: "Nothing is more soul-crushing than to work with some prescribed, neutered brand palette you cannot modify."

Yet it's an unavoidable part of the branded world we live in. Certain colour choices have been 'owned'. Maybe the only way of side-stepping this is to rain colours down in a crazy profusion. How are they going to patent that?

Connections
Sam Green thinks the current colour experiments have something to do with time and place. "It's interesting," he notes, "how easy it is to identify what time period a piece of work has come from just by observing the colour palette." Much contemporary work is clearly taking inspiration from the '60s and '80s and having a bit of fun with it. But there's a degree of sophistication there too, as Green observes: "People are taking colour palettes from the past and bringing them up to date by placing them in different contexts."

Whether it's a reaction to the global mood or purely cyclical, this explosion of colour has become a self-sustaining reaction. No doubt it will burn out eventually but, with any luck, as with the decades being revisited now, we'll be left with something worth rediscovering in the future. As Slawek Michalt puts it, "The emotional connection has been the same for centuries. It is about making use of this relationship in order to open up new spaces."

That happens nowhere more than in an artist's personal work, the home of experimentation. "In my personal work I use the most eccentric combinations," Pedro Vilas-Boas admits. He takes the chance to explore such things as melancholy and chaos. "I'm taken by colours," says Vilas-Boas. "I'm looking for 'happy accidents'".

Discoveries happen when you give them space. A great example of this comes from Chrissie Abbott, who's found a way to add movement to her work by putting two opposite colours together as alternating stripes. "It makes your eyes vibrate," she enthuses, and surely finding new ways to rattle the odd peeper has got to be a good way to spend your time. It also points to the central capacity of colour; it gives life, movement, feeling. Vilas-Boas agrees: "Speaking metaphorically, colour is the fuel that makes my plane fly, the electricity that makes my guitar play."