Thursday, April 15, 2010

In the future, every color will be world-famous for 15 minutes

I couldn’t resist twisting Andy Warhol’s quote after seeing the first museum survey exhibition of the work he produced during his final years. It was worth taking the train to Fort Worth during my brief stay in Dallas to see "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade" at the Modern Art Museum.

If truth be told, I was more motivated to see the Ando-designed Museum – a cluster of floating pavilions - than the Warhol exhibit. The experience turned out to be a clash of the colorless world of Ando’s concrete and steel structures and the riotous colors of Warhol’s canvases and prints. A powerful juxtaposition of geniuses and color theory!

Prior to seeing this exhibit, I had always thought of Warhol (1928–1987) as an artist with a crayola coloring-book approach to color. Any color would work as long as it was a raw primary or secondary color. The image – Marilyn Monroe, Mao, or shoes – was the focus. In fact, we recognize his position in art history as the man who transformed soup cans and other icons of pop culture into true art.

Now we have this exhibit ... and it exposes his mastery of color and techniques on a scale that you have to see to believe. For example, “Christ 112 Times /Detail of The Last Supper” is an acrylic with silkscreen ink on canvas the size of a bus. 112 small panels of Jesus’ face (from “The Last Supper”) in yellow on black fill the painting. Yellow and black!

On a smaller scale, his series of “Shadows” panels (about 4’ x 6’ each) contain a single geometric colored shape that seems to glow from within. They actually rivaled the mystical quality of the Rothko painting in the permanent collection below the Warhol exhibit.

By the way, during the last decade of his life, Warhol created more artwork - and on a vastly larger scale - than during any other phase of his 40-year career. This exhibit was a rare opportunity to view 55 works that had never been seen together for the first time.

It seems that his color sensitivity was making history in a way that Andy may not have realized. But then again, maybe he did. As it turns out, he was a closet Catholic and - perhaps in the same sense that he was a master of puns - he loved to play with color as much as the object during his last years.

Video - Warhol Exhibit

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Note: The exhibit travels to the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 17, 2010–January 9, 2011.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Color that’s Worth $80,000,000

A reader asked what shade of green I specified for the bank in the previous blog post. Before I answer that, here’s a story about a multi-million dollar color:

The right shade of blue can be worth $80 million – at least that’s what they say about Bing’s blue link color. Microsoft’s research team found that blue engaged people the most and they tested various shades of blue in user groups. First, they determined that their previous shade of blue (a paler hue) lacked confidence. Finally, they wound up with a shade of blue quite similar to the one used by Google. Based on user feedback, the team estimated the best blue color could generate $80 million to $90 million in ad sales.

By the way, you’ve probably been a guinea pig for Google’s analysis of the click-through rate of different link colors. Gmail’s users were randomly tested with 40 different link colors, ranging from “blue-with-greenish” to “blue-with-blue-ish.” Google discovered that blue-ish links encouraged more clicking than greenish. (Have you noticed that Gmail uses a slightly different shade of blue for its links than the main Google search page?)

My take on this is that HTML links were originally a similar shade of blue – a strong vivid blue with great contrast on a white background. Perhaps we're just hard-wired to click on blue. Is there really such a difference between #0044CC and #2200CC as to have a noticeable effect? What do you think? Also, aside from those blues, which color would make you click more?

This raises a provocative design question: Should the best color for links be a pure design decision made by someone with strong expertise in design, psychology, and human-computer interaction or should it be determined by an (unintentional) vote among users?

Back to the question about the specific shade of green for that bank: It was not a stodgy green, not a stereotypical banker’s green, NOT that overused green that is used for every eco call to action, and not pure RGB green #00FF00. It was a very special green that can’t be revealed due to confidentiality clauses for this project. However, it is worth noting that the logo design included a small color accent and that the new green created the right harmonious relationships. Always remember that colors never exist in isolation. It may be as simple as blue text on a white background, or pure green next to yellow on a dark green background.

In conclusion, do you think that green can be worth as much as that the blue link color? Consider the phenomenal success Heinz EZ Squirt Blastin' Green ketchup. More than 10 million bottles were sold in the first seven months following its introduction. The result: $23 million in sales - the highest sales increase in the brand's history.

But what about a specific shade of green? What if you could trademark “your green” and prevent others from using it? Would that be worth more than a billion dollars? Here’s an answer: BP, one of the world's largest energy companies, was denied a trademark for green. Here's why: Link

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Working with Color: Bailouts and Branding

I love interviews with the press because there’s always one challenging question that requires a good answer. Last week, the interviewer asked, “How do you get your color consultation projects?” I replied that half the time, there’s a color disaster underway and someone contacts me. Typically, “the boss” has chosen his or her favorite color for the logo (or the product, packaging, etc.) and a member of the staff senses that there is something terribly wrong with the choice.

One of my recent projects is a perfect example of these color bailouts: In this case, the CEO had chosen purple for the bank’s new logo and all collateral material. The V-P questioned whether purple was appropriate and provided a list of the attributes that the logo color should communicate: simplicity, ease of access, multiple access points, state of the art technology, and ecological awareness. As for demographics, the customers ranged from GenY to Baby Boomers in the mid-west, (U.S.). Yes, she was right about her color intuition. Although purple does align itself with high technology, it would fail to address all the other critical criteria for a bank. My ten-page documentation presented an objective analysis of purple and a specification for the best color. (By the way, the nice part of this business is knowing that you can mediate a dispute with rational information – and you always gain some insights about the mysterious and compelling world of personal color preferences.)

Another situation unfolds when the color selection has been placed in the hands of the pigment or paint chemists and someone in another department raises a red flag. For example, it wasn’t very long ago that the colors for pills came out of the lab – and these colors typically had no logical connection to color communication and the consumer. Consider this: The "Golden Rule" in pharmaceuticals is to select colors that represent the cure, not the malady. Picture a grey anti-depressant tablet - and then think about what color should be avoided for a sleeping pill. (See Taking the Colors of Medications Seriously)

As for the rest of my color projects, I’m usually involved before a product is rolled out and long before there’s a problem. In recent years, golf carts, computer hardware, medications, garbage cans, and even toilet plungers have been part of the mix. However, just when it seemed that most of my focus was on branding and marketing, an architectural project arrived and I wound up analyzing paint scrapings under a microscope and specifying paint colors for a historical restoration.

The only thing that challenges me about this work is that I have to shut down my personal passions for colors and stick to objective criteria. I’ll admit that yellow has always been my favorite color and that other colors drift into my personal kaleidoscope – colors like tomato red and tender shades of teal. But this is my personal agenda and I’d never apply it to the real world of color consultation.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When is a color racially offensive?

The recent controversy surrounding the aboriginal costumes worn by Russian ice dancers Domnina and Shabalin raises questions of cultural theft, authenticity of the steps, and appropriate costumes. Some Australian aboriginal leaders have claimed that the pair’s brown-toned costumes adorned with leaves and white aboriginal-style markings were offensive and far from authentic. On the other hand, the Russian duo’s coach explained that the term "aboriginal" translates from Latin language and means "from the beginning" and that they tried to represent a picture of the time when aboriginal people were in the world - with no reference to any country or custom. Nevertheless, in spite of changing the hue of their original costumes from a dark brown (intended to make their skins look darker) to a paler shade, which better matched the Russians' natural skin tone, the controversy still rages.

This inspires me to write about the topic of "color racism" – something that I’ve been pondering ever since reading that the word "negro" is used on the 2010 U.S. Census. From a historical perspective and my experiences living in the South, it’s an obsolete and offensive word that many African Americans associate with segregation and a regrettable chapter of American history. My outrage mellowed a little after learning that the census box includes all 3 racial identifiers – black, African American, negro - all placed next to each other and next to the same check box. Census officials explained that some older African Americans identify themselves that way and they're trying to be inclusive. If I take their word for it, I’d have to put this to rest. In this case, how you define yourself is subjective.

An interesting contrast is the color term "flesh" when it’s used as a synonym for a light color. Crayola got the message back in 1962 and changed the name to peach (recognizing that not everyone's flesh is the same shade). In spite of this, a recent AP story described Michelle Obama’s dress as "a gleaming silver-sequined, flesh-colored gown." The writer - or someone - evidently got the memo and changed "flesh" to "cream" in later versions of the story. Source

Two weeks ago, yellow made the news. No one can justify naming the train route in the Asian community the "Yellow Line" – as was the case in Atlanta, Georgia. Although transit officials claimed that naming it the "yellow line" was part of color-coding the entire transit systems by using primary colors, this was racially insensitive and quite different from the census example. Yellow has never been used as a racial identifier for Asians. It is used as an offensive racial slur and it also carries historical baggage that can’t be ignored. After considerable protest, the route was changed to "Gold. "

A web site included this comment on the Atlanta situation: "It's becoming a sad, sad world when some find names of colors racial and the powers that be bow down to them."

What do you think?

By the way, green is just a color … not a virtue.

Friday, February 12, 2010

There’s More Than Love at the Heart of Red

"Monkey Butt Red" and "Flaming Fuchsia" made the news recently - at least in the automotive industry. These are the names of colors created by Toyota and Dodge for the debut of their elite sports cars. Consider the possibility that these colors and their names were intended to generate a lot of press.

In the spirit of Valentines Day, the colors red and fuchsia (aka magenta, hot pink) generated considerable excitement in other arenas in the past year. Here’s some recent news about these two loving colors:

1. Scientists found that red seems to improve attention to detail while blue sparks creativity.

2. Marine biologists discovered that a lot of fish in the sea glow a fluorescent red. This is startling news because scientists believed that fish don’t see red very well or not at all because red light does not penetrate below a depth of 30 feet. Why develop a skill that you will never be able to use?

3. Red is the #1 color in advertising design.

4. Companies see red over rights to the color magenta.

5. When 877 members of USA TODAY's CEO panel took an online personality color test, they were three times more likely to favor magenta than the public at large, three times less likely to select red, and 3 times less likely to choose yellow.

6. India's "pink panties" revolution for freedom from Indian women's sexual prisons begins.

This Valentine's Day, think about your red. What does the color mean to you? Remember that color is like sex. It's mysterious. It's unknowable. No two people see the same thing. No two people feel the same thing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Shattering a Colorblind View of the Past

For nearly two centuries, scholars have been arguing that beige and white were not the true colors of antiquity. The Parthenon in Athens and the Forum in Rome might have been almost gaudy. Unfortunately, such ideas have never influenced Hollywood or many experts. For example, in "Gladiator," when Russell Crowe strides down the streets of ancient Rome, circa A.D. 180, he's backed up by the proper complement of white marble. In almost every view of the past, textbooks included, the ancient world comes off as monochrome.

A flood of recent exhibitions has put color back into the vocabulary of antiquity. Last year, "Gods in Color" in Boston and "The Color of Life" exhibition at the Getty featured multi-colored sculptural masterpieces from the Greek and Roman eras.

However, not all scholars are pleased. Of note, Fabio Barry, an art historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is not overly fond of the Prima Porta sculpture's colored reconstruction. "Can you imagine the family-values, back-to-basics, republican emperor Augustus . . . represented by something that looks like a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi?" raves Barry, an expert on the history of marble. He insists that the Romans cherished the whiteness of fine marble as an important symbol of light and purity.

On the other hand, Getty Curator Kenneth Lapatin "For the Greeks it was all about mimesis," says, using the Greek word for realistic imitation. Beauty depended on it.

A week ago, scientists revealed something else that shatters our preconceived notions about the drab and dinghy colors of an even more distant past. A team of British and Chinese scientists found evidence that a dinosaur that lived about 125 million years ago had a feathered mohawk with orange-brown bristly feathers around its tail. By examining and comparing tiny structures (melanins) in the feathers, they found the color associated with red-brown. Source

While this colorful development in the lost world of dinosaurs is quite exciting, it will still be left up to our imaginations to create the colors of popular dinosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus rex - at least for now.

As for antiquity, we also need help visualizing and accepting a colored world of architecture and sculpture.

Perhaps this century will colorize the past in amazing ways.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Color Karma for the Next Decade

Where will color go in 2010? What about the next decade? Will we be under the influence of trends or will the timeless powers of color rule? I’m sure you’ll agree that it will be both - and it all depends on many factors. The good thing about trends is that they inject new life into the color wheel. Yes, but what goes around comes around again and that’s my first take on color karma for the next decade.

Several trends gurus proclaim that mauve is back. It’s a subtle shifty hue that a painter described as “the color of a dead prostitute’s lips.” With that aside, here’s how I remember this color’s popularity in the past: The interiors of homes, offices, and even hospitals were drenched in mauve – and it was usually combined with teal (a blue-green). This new color combination was a sophisticated switch from the organic avocado and harvest gold hues that dominated the previous decade. Note: Pantone has declared that turquoise is the color for 2010.

Consider this: The mauving of America in the 80s followed the avocado refrigerator days of the 70s. Do the math:

Yellow-green / avocado: 1970s + 30 years = 2000 - through the decade
(Note: Shortly before the year 2000 yellow-greens became the cutting edge color for products and advertising.)

Mauve: 1980s + 30 years = 2010 - ?

In retrospect, it seems that one or two colors emerge as the most powerful new trends and this trend lasts about a decade. Also, after a color has dropped off the radar for at least 20 years, it’s a good time to resurrect it.

However, we live in a different world today. It’s so complex that no one dares to proclaim that any single color has the staying power for a decade. Alas! Those who dare to predict trends limit it to one year – as is the case with the recent proclamation by Pantone and others.

Time will tell.

In conclusion, I can now disclose my most recent project. The next generation of Xerox printers has debuted. I was part of an international team that came up with one color (the accent color for the front panel) for all the printers, from the small business models to the huge production machines. Guess what? It’s a classical color that was tweaked with subtle undertones for the next decade.

A word of advice for all aspiring colorists: Build a foundation in timeless color concepts. And have fun!