The powerful influence of color

Posted by on February 18, 2013 in Blog | Comments Off on The powerful influence of color

The powerful influence of color

In my current role as Director of Labs and Chief Scientist for, I do a lot of thinking about color (or “colour” for my UK friends). It is easily one of the most fascinating topics I have pondered in a long time.

My labs team is trying to solve various problems to do with perception, taste and color harmony. The end goal is to suggest decor products that the user will find pleasing in his or her current, or planned, space.

This inevitably means that we have to use software to figure out what people might love. I’ve met and interviewed various color experts, interior designers, and all manner of folks in the “color business,” whether that’s fashion, decor, painting or image processing. We’ve set out to build a “decor engine” that will attempt to understand color, decor, taste and then find products that fit with various “decor taste profiles.”

If you want a very good introduction to color models, the Wikipedia page does a great job for the most part (and the HSV, HSL page  offers lots of additional detail). For those with a greater thirst for color insights related particularly to painting, Bruce MacEvoy’s (January 2010) Color Vision book is a fascinating and curious read. Pantone publish lots of books about color, many written by the fabulous Leatrice Eiseman who has influenced a lot of my thinking about the importance of color moods.

One of the most intriguing discoveries was the existence of color prediction and an entire “color cabal” dedicated to predicting color trends, as far out as five years for the automobile industry. Of course, they are not predicting at all. They are deciding and then publishing the trends for entire industries to follow.

Now, all of the theory and machine intelligence in the world won’t make a difference without a credible user interface. And it is here that I spend most of my time pondering the issues of “interface language.” You see, all interfaces “talk” to the user, via symbols, text and a variety of visual structures.

Take the humble color palette for example. The web is now strewn with sites that offer to create, curate, suggest and design color palettes. is one of many examples. What does a palette with five colors say to its viewers? Why five, not three? Why this particular order and not another (the inevitability of using an array of color chips is that the array has to be ordered). What does the order mean?

Such questions have to be answered in terms of both the mental models that the intended recipients might have about color and color palettes, and in terms of what the “palette curator” is intending.

In product design, separating out the “technical language” from the “user language” is one of the most challenging problems. We see this all the time with software products and electronics. The greatest mind shift comes when a product manager or designer realizes that he or she is really an advocate for the user, not for his or her own design ego and worldview.

Oh, and just so you know, 2013 is the year of emerald green.


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