Any graphical image, including printed and electronic pages,
and computer software displays and GUIs (graphical user interfaces)
color theory, context, background, figure-ground relationships,
color shift, fluting, ambient light, psychological associations
. . .
effective use of color to help convey a message is described in
Color Is Information,
but colors change depending upon the context
in which they are used.
When the same color is used in different contexts the perception
of that color can change radically.
On Color Theory
Color is a deep subject.
and designers spend a long time mastering color theory.
Perhaps the world's foremost master of color is Josef Albers,
whose paintings are essentially case studies in color,
demonstrating how the same color can look
radically different (or even how
two different colors can look the same) depending upon
We won't attempt a complete Albers color course here, but
we can provide a few pointers about how color perception is
contingent upon the context, including background and adjacent colors,
ambient and reflected light, and psychological associations.
Everything we see consists of colors, including shades of grey,
black and white.
As an experiment cut black or white areas from magazine photos
and place them together. Not only will one black appear dark
grey against a "blacker black", but you will see that most of
what we perceive as black is in fact dark blue, purple, green,
red and so forth. Similarly, what we perceive as white is in
fact a very light color.
A single color may look very different on different backgrounds.
This effect is easiest to achieve with secondary colors placed
on their constituent primaries: an orange will look more red
on yellow, and more yellow on red.
The effect can also be achieved by placing a low-saturation (greyish)
color on background colors it is between within the color wheel.
Consider this medium grey.
We can change the color we perceive it to be by varying its context
To illustrate let's experiment with two other colors we wouldn't normally
think "go together" with grey, colors we'll call "olive" and "lavender".
If we place this grey in the middle of an olive and a lavender field,
it appears to be two very different colors.
Because the colors are of similar saturation and value,
the grey on the olive
looks almost like the lavender, and the grey on the lavender
looks almost like the olive. This effect becomes stronger as one stares
at the edge between the lavender and the olive.
If we place the grey between the olive and lavender it begins to
"flute", that is, its right edge looks like the color on its left,
and its left edge looks like the color on its right.
becomes more pronounced the more one stares at one edge of the
grey, then shifts the stare to the other edge of the grey.
Similar effects can be used to create illusions of transparency.
The fluting effect can be further extended if we place a darker
olive on the left and a brighter lavender on the right.
Notice how the original olive and lavender now also flute just
like the original grey.
Also notice that the effect is more pronounced on the lavender
end of the spectrum because those colors are brighter.
If we place these same five colors together in a narrow band
they begin to look like one continuous airbrush effect.
This is because the colors of each adjacent pair are very close to each other,
making the edges between them very soft.
This can be used to an advantage.
For example, a painting may utilize all sorts of colors for skin tones,
including violets and greens, that blend together at a distance to
appear quite realistic.
On the other hand, this would be a poor choice for figure-ground
relationships that require high definition, such as type on a
At the other extreme are highly contrasting colors
that create hard edges.
But certain contrasting colors placed together will
create an edge that "vibrates" optically.
Adjacent colors will vibrate if they are
highly saturated (vivid) and roughly the same value (brightness or intensity).
The effect is most pronounced with complementary hues
(colors diametrically opposed to each other in the color wheel).
While this may be effectively used for applications like op art, you
(usually) don't want to force people to read vibrating text.
Ambient and reflected light conditions also affect color.
Take a close look at the shiny surface such as that of a car.
It may actually contain a miriad of colors in the reflections,
and change radically from day to night, yet we perceive it to
be the same color.
Photographers capitalize on this by "bouncing" different types
of light onto their subjects.
Even the color of your clothes can change the colors you perceive,
or the complexion others perceive you to have.
People make all sorts of associations with certain colors, and artists
and designers use them all the time, but these associations are highly
For example, in one context a
may seem "happy" or "festive"; in another it may seem "fruity".
Or consider associations with blue:
feeling blue, a financial balance in the blue, cool blue water,
blue suit executives, a blue corpse and blue movies
have few connotations in common.
Across cultures common associations with color are even more variable.
Be careful of applying cliched meanings to colors.
Use colors that are appropriate for the context.
Consider how color perception changes depending upon the
physical and psychological setting:
Colors shift relative to their backgrounds:
a green looks more yellow on blue, more blue on yellow.
Similar colors next to each other will have soft edges that
Saturated complementary colors next to each other will
have hard edges that vibrate.
Ambient and reflected light alters color perception.
Psychological associations with different colors are situation specific.
These effects can work for you or against you depending
upon your intent.
Interaction of Color,
Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1975.
Graphic Design for Electronic Documents and User Interfaces,
chapter 4, Color,
ACM Press, 1992.
Exploring Color in Interface Design,
Subing, Falk & Johansen,
Interactions magazine, July/August, 1996.
Gary Swift, 20 August 1996
This pattern was originated by the author at INTERACTIVE
Systems, Corp. in 1989, for the CUI interface to the
bootstrap of INTERACTIVE UNIX which was highly constrained by
the 16-color PC/AT palette.