coloured up

Photo: Bernard Gagnon

Is fashion is the only design discipline with colour truly embedded at its core? The search for ‘new blacks’ notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine fashion without colour. Interior design takes it fairly seriously and like fashion, devotes significant effort to forecasting colour trends. Architecture and industrial design sometimes seem timid with colour but project leadtimes, materials & regulatory issues inhibit experiment. Somewhere in the middle is graphic design: sometimes using colour well, often not. What is graphic design’s excuse?

Commercial colour was slow to evolve. Henry ‘any colour as long as it’s black’ Ford finally admitted the existence of colour by introducing the famous blue oval logo in 1928. Until mid-twentieth century, red was pretty much the only other, more extrovert option. The middle of the visible light spectrum was considered frightening (or perhaps just harder to print) until the latter part of the century, when organisations like Orange, BP and EasyJet made it their business to plant their brand flags in the remaining colour territories. However, to this day a (usually dark) shade of blue remains the choice of the corporate chromophobe.

Graphic design is also rooted in the now-extinct pasteup artwork process (black & white photoprints / metal type proofs gummed to art board and photographed to make printing plates). Then, colour intentions were loosely described to clients with Magic Marker visuals and finally specified with colour samples attached to artworks. Colour was often an afterthought and colourblind designers found their condition no impediment. Always graphic design aims to create communications distilled to their essence—and that can make colour a secondary consideration. In higher education, the breadth of knowledge now expected of design graduates can cause colour to be neglected as an area of detailed study.

Colour reproduction is also flawed at best. Brand design produces some of the most visible colour in everyday life, but is restrained in subtlety by the need for cross-media consistency. Subtle shades are hard to maintain consistently on-screen in RGB / websafe colours (seen in transmitted, artificial light on calibrated / uncalibrated monitor screens); across various print processes / different substrates (seen in artificial and / or natural lighting); also in manufactured vehicle liveries, signs and other items using various material colour specification systems. In truth—no matter what the Pantone Corporation would have you believe—it is practically impossible to fully control and match colour across all media. Some (perhaps understandably) baulk at the challenges and keep brand colour simple and crude.

Enough already with the excuses. Web colour standards continue to evolve and there is no significant limit to what can be achieved with colour in print (given a decent budget). Our machines and software allow us effortless trialling of options and there are numerous web and other resources to stimulate the tired mind: Colourlovers encourages everyone to consider colour more thoughtfully; Colour DNA is a social network improbably based on favourite colours; Google now has search by colour —all suggesting an increasing public appetite for colour.

History may have instilled some conservatism in corporate culture, but our newer tools allow us ever-increasing freedom to experiment. We live in a more colour-conscious world and despite production problems, communication without colour is now unthinkable. It is powerfully emotive, improving impact, recognition and recall. Designers have a duty to fully exploit the possibilities of colour. Whilst I will definitely not be specifying Pantone’s Colour of the Year (18-2120, should you care) any time soon, I will be trying to ensure that the preponderance of corporate blue on the alembic website is significantly diminished in future…




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