True colours

Any colour - so long as it's black€¦ It may sound like a clich a glance back at the distant decade that was the 'designer eighties', and it's true: designers like to wear a lot of black. But do we do this to look cool or because we are indecisive about what any radical use of colour might say about us? It's not just in what we choose to wear - we're advised by the onslaught of home-improvement-make-over-get-rich-quick TV programmes, blinking at us around the clock, that the best way to sell our designer apartments is to paint every wall in neutral shades. The rational behind a couple of coats of magnolia? Best not put off potential buyers with a home that has a personality.

Think of the machine that you work at. If you're a PC-user, a drab beige box is likely to be what greets you at boot-up every morning and, even as a Mac-user, the days of Bondi-Blue and Rainbow iMacs have well and truly passed. Apple, the very purveyors of all things cool, soon put a stop to colour choice when it replaced the iPod Mini with the Nano. Gone were the previous cool shades and the replacement came in white. Then things got radical when we were offered, in a black-to-basics campaign, the colour black.

Let's face it, colour has lost its sex appeal. It was Henry Ford, when launching his first production-line car, who exclaimed: "People can have the Model T in any colour - so long as it's black." So here we are with our black designer suits, black cars and black iPods and, guess what, the jury is still out on whether black can even be defined as a colour. In one corner you have those who believe that, in terms of perception, black is like greys and white and is an achromatic colour. Achromatic? Basically, a colour without hue or saturation or, to put it another way, 'strength'. And then in the other corner are those that believe, in terms of the physical, that black refers to the total absence of visible radiation or light and if there is no physical stimulus, there can be no physiological response. To put their theory in simple terms - no response = no perception = no colour.

Colour comprehension
So has colour really given up for good, taken its ball and gone home? Why, of course not. Colour is alive and kicking and keen to be taken seriously again. It can, however, be a very tricky medium to work with - far more difficult than experimenting with form - so comprehending how we comprehend colour is a useful starting point.

Colour is a medium that we can experience through only one sense: sight. Other experiences can rely on a number of senses to get their message across: something that is hot, for example, can be felt and can be seen. Think about watching a steak cook on a barbeque: you can witness the heat and feel it with your skin. Heat can also be heard - the steak will sizzle as it cooks. Colours are different: something that is blue can only be seen to be blue. You can't touch blue or smell blue or taste blue, confirming the observer can only read colour using sight. The act of viewing something comes before the process of reacting to it; once we have experienced colour through our eyes, our minds work to help us place meaning to the colour.

Colour and its associations
The associations that we have with colour differ from individual to individual and from culture to culture. People will respond to colours in different ways, these responses taking place on a subconscious, emotional level. We can assume, here in the West, that people understand that black is the colour associated with death. However, in the Orient it is white that is the traditional colour of mourning. Native Americans believed white to be the colour associated with South, representing warmth, peace and happiness; while West is represented by black, the colour that reflected problems and death. In Asian cultures, black represents the career and self-cultivation as well as evil influences and mourning, while white is associated with children and helpful people.

As global markets continue to open for designers and as the global village we were once promised becomes an increasingly realistic career choice, it has never been more important to understand the complexities of international and cultural colour usage. Paul Burgess, the designer of the recent sleeve artwork for The Delays' You See Colours, understands the significance of colour use and how certain colours are perceived. "When I start a new project, I read through the brief and imagine colours in my head. Colour is a very emotive thing: reds and orange evoke passion, lust and danger, whereas blues and greens are the colours of calm and cool," he states. Carl Rush, Creative Director at Crush agrees: "We all know that red is loud, dangerous and sexy and we know too that greens and browns are associated with calm and autumn." Rush adds: "These colour combinations are almost preset assumptions ingrained from childhood and when, as a designer, you work with colour every day, these types of connections become second nature."

Designers can often conjure up magical responses to communication problems within days, even hours, but given the opportunity to ponder a project for longer, many designers and illustrators enjoy the process of searching out new inspirations for a colour palette for a special project.

Studio Tonne's Paul Farrington, the man responsible for web projects for the likes of Depeche Mode and Moby, has his own techniques for choosing colours. "Inspiration only comes, for me, with what feels right for a job," he states. "I prefer organic colours, things that can be found in the garden€¦ from the back of a snail to the colour of bamboo." Farrington is also a huge fan of a book that has also given him some strong influences and ideas: The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E Cytowic. "It's all about this medical condition where certain people smell colour and can see sounds based on colours," offers Farrington. True enough - Synaesthesia is a rare condition, affecting just ten people in one million, where people are born into a world where one sensation (such as sound) conjures up one or more others (such as taste or colour). Cytowic argues that the brain is an active explorer, not just a passive receiver, and offers alternative views of what it means to be human.

Other designers and illustrators approach the issue of inspiration for colour in slightly more formal and recognised ways. Rosie Irvine, a stencil-based illustrator best known for her work for Design Week, Elle and Neon, admits: "I take inspiration from anything and everything - from buttons found in the street to charity shop odds and ends. I have several sketchbooks, folders and albums on the go which I fill up with ideas, pictures and things that I find or tear out from places - all with the intention of finding great colour combinations." For Irvine, the most enjoyable aspect of the process can be the very progression from initial colour test to final application of colour. "I tend to use a fairly muted palette," she explains, "with the odd bold colour or two mixed in. I try to treat my illustrations like a sketchbook or work-in-progress in order to help find the right balance."

"Inspiration for colour comes from anywhere," explains Paul Burgess, "but with The Delays' album it was colour itself that became the inspiration. The band changed the title of the album to You See Colours, after seeing the artwork. Originally it was to be entitled Capture the Flag." Burgess offers his own approach to colour inspiration: "I take a lot of photographs when I'm out and about, mostly just for reference. These are often just great colour combinations - it might be an image of a brick wall with peeling paint, it might be some garish seaside rock at the end of the pier - it's all great reference just waiting to be used!"

Trips to the beach also provide inspiration for Russell Hrachovec of CompoundEye. "I once sat on the seafront, having been struggling to find the right colour combo for a brochure I was designing for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the US," he admits, "when a woman walked past in a shiny olive green sari and black patent-leather shoes. Within two weeks MCAD was giving its students brochures in metallic olive green and black."

Matt Rice of Sennep, a London-based award-winning digital agency, admits to following a similar path to other designers when it comes to sourcing colour inspiration. "It can come from anything: a fruit sticker, a painting, a film, a photograph," he states, "but generally the brief leads our thinking." Sennep has undertaken high-profile web projects for brands such as Horlicks, Simpsons of Piccadilly and illustration collective Peepshow.

Colour and branding
Modern branding and the use of colour are now so intertwined that it's impossible to contemplate, for example, drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola without making an association with the colour red or picking up a can of Pepsi without seeing blue. The colours associated with the two brands ensure that you never confuse the two - whichever you prefer, you'll make no mistake. Colour plays a significant part in modern branding: think of Orange's 'the future's bright'; think of Benetton and you picture the green of the identity but also every bright colour under the sun; think of the golden arches of McDonalds; the green and black of Starbucks; the sky blue of American Express. The list is endless!

Working with brand colours doesn't need to inhibit creativity though, because there is often room to work with a wider palette of colours. "We don't have an in-house style or colour palette," explains Matt Rice at Sennep. "Each solution is tailored to the client's needs and the colour palette is chosen to enhance the design concept or brand identity." It was while working on the Horlicks website that Sennep developed a colour range that suited the client's needs and that worked within existing branding guidelines. "Colour has a big effect on the look and feel of a project," explains Rice. "With Horlicks it was obvious to us that the background had to be blue. We then chose shades of blue to create a dark and shady atmosphere and then accent colours were picked up from the golden moon and used for text, fire files and links."

Carl Rush, at Crush, knows and understands the importance of a good working relationship with his clients. "Brands want to stick to their brand architecture palette," explains Rush, "and have a problem, rightly I believe, in straying too far away." Rush adds, "If a client dislikes a colour scheme, I would fight for it for all of one minute before trying something else - colour is so subjective and personal that there really is little point in saying that someone else's choice is either right or wrong."

Print perfect
As most designers today are aware, what you see certainly isn't always what you get, and setting up a job correctly for print isn't always the easiest ticket in town. So, even with monitors improving annually and therefore colour accuracy improving too, it still pays to have a system to check against - there's no digital equivalent to seeing something in print. Matt Wingfield Studio, based in London, works in design for print but is an agency with a difference. It actually creates much of the print in house. Predominately working on in-store and windows projects for retail companies such as Ted Baker, Top Shop, Harvey Nichols and Liberty, MWS works from the conception of an idea right through to production of the solution. Wingfield gives his uncomplicated approach to colour management: "To get the real sample of a colour, view it in the right format," he advises. "If it's on the web, check it on a range of different monitors; if you're working on a T-shirt, sample the ink and the finish; if the job is being run through a lithopress, get a wet proof; and if the job requires spraying, spray it."

Colour isn't an exact science, far from it; it's often a purely personal experience. However, getting advice from those professional designers making decisions every day about its usage should really aid others in their overall quest for greater knowledge. The last words then, must go to Carl Rush at Crush: "I'm excellent at colour as a graphic designer, but I'm completely clueless when it comes to choosing paint for the walls of my house."

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