The Colors of Our Craft Part 1

Alexander Sprauve
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November 16, 2021
Alexander Sprauve
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Senior Design Strategist
6 Min Read Time
/
November 16, 2021
Speck Design examines the use of color in industrial design and engineering through the lens of HCD, color theory, color psychology, and science.

Color. The ethereal thing that quietly dances through our days influencing nearly every decision we make. When to stop, when to go, when to sleep, what to eat. Each of these actions (and most others) are, in some way, the direct or indirect result of about 1 million visible colors exerting their indelible control over our lives.

Color is Abstract

It is a construct.  Some argue that color does not exist but for a viewer. While others believe it is started in the real world but finished in the brain of each individual. Most who have studied color tend to agree we probably don’t all see it precisely the same, but likely similarly. It is a matter of degree, understanding, or calibration. 

Color is Subjective

As you will come to see, through our Speck Color Series, millions of colors exist outside of our ability to see them--we simply lack the hardware--we only have three cones. Although, some among us have four. Tetrachromats. Theoretically, only females: They are rare and thought to have the ability to see more varieties between existing colors, not new ones. Yet, most tetrachromats don’t see--or know they see--those additional hues. Why? Because the colors don’t have names, and humans have a powerful connection between language and visual understanding. Yes, it sounds bizarre. However, being able to see a color and not noticing it is not limited to these four-cone unicorns. There are trichromatic populations in the world today that still don’t know or see the color blue or rather distinguish it from green.  Consequently, they don’t have a name for it either: unseen, unnamed, or perhaps the other way around?


It doesn’t get more abstract than that.  

Color is a Tangible Connection to the Outside World

But color is real too; it is an actual wave of electromagnetic energy that excites the cones in our eyes—a physical tether from the outside world to our brains. And, for a very practical reason--survival. While modern society overwhelmingly understands color as a decorative construct, it has, throughout evolution, been so much more pragmatic than that. In fact, scientific consensus seems to favor the idea that seeing the full spectrum of colors (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) is a very recent advent in our human evolution. Hominids saw red first, the color of ripe berries (or perhaps poisonous ones). Red, the first burst of brightness in a world otherwise filled with tonal grays. Those who first “saw” or “noticed” it ate better, lived longer, and had more offspring, many of which were genetically predisposed and/or nurtured to see red: fast-tracked to survive.


Humans Evolved to See Colors

Humans(being humans), we’ve handily carried the function of seeing colors along with us on our evolutionary journey. Each new color became apparent when it was evolutionarily convenient or perhaps when we were thus exposed. While still a critical aspect of our daily survival, our relationship with colors, along with our hominid brains, have evolved into something very different. We’ve “caught feelings” for them, taken to expressing ourselves through them, even developed a psychology around them. And, that right there is where an industrial designer’s world and this natural phenomenon intersect--hung on the vertices of human survival and the human psyche.

Color in Industrial and Product Design

Color is often a designer’s first hint at intention. For visual, graphic, and web designers, it is a means of speaking to a predetermined audience, parsing out which hues or combinations thereof will make them feel or do something. For industrial engineers and product designers, the use of color goes a step beyond, harkening back to its pragmatic origins--survival. That is why this type of work is fundamentally human-centric; because empathy derives from wanting other humans to survive. Color is as often used to tell an end-user what to do as what not to do: don’t touch that, stay out of there. For people in these critical professions, although color certainly needs to invoke all the feelings present in a piece of art, it is also a practical and powerful tool in empathy-based, human-centric design.  


Product Color Industrial Design and Engineering Silos

There are three main silos for color; it is the designer or engineer’s job to synthesize all three into something safe, useful, and sellable, oftentimes relying on color as the unifier. 


Color for Functionality: Color is applied as a way to communicate what a product is about, what it does. It tells humans, consummate tool makers, where this thing belongs in our every expanding kit of tools. 


Color for Saleability: Color is the easiest thing for users to remember when encountering a brand for the first time. 90% of the 90-second decision people make to like or dislike a product relies solely on the use of color. 


Color for Safety:  Color is used as a warning system of sorts, passing tribal knowledge of known dangers from human to human. It is no accident that the bulk of our standardized safety colors are the same ones nature advertises as danger: the ones we saw first.


About Speck Design’s The Colors of Our Craft Blog Series


Under the lens of those silos, we will peer through the prism of colors in our Speck Color Series. We will present the relationship industrial designers and engineers have with color, their reasoning behind each selection, and how that impacts the humans they design for. We will talk with our own engineers to understand what specific colors mean to them. And, of course, we present a plethora of fascinating information about each one.  


Choosing which color to begin with proved to be a heady undertaking. So overwhelming, in fact, our color selection is not one at all--it is black.  In a world full of brilliant colors, it is the absence of them, the shade of night, the hue of death, and yet we humans are undeniably drawn to it. Why is that? Continue with us on this color journey, and just maybe we’ll see.


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