Colour in Time
Jan Brand, Anne van der Zwaag (ed.)
ArtEZ Press / Terra, 2011


All Color is Virtual

I have long resisted buying a color printer. Didn’t need it. All this fuss about colored lines and words in text that is much more legible in plain black and white... Maybe this aversion was motivated by the same sentiment that inspires my dress code – and that of many of my peers in the cultural field – of black and greys. Color is distraction, black and white is essence. And we’re about essence.

Meanwhile, of course, I do own a color printer, if only because there is no other on the market these days. But I use this printer sparsely. For years now, the main medium I use for reading is not the printed page, but the computer screen. And in this medium, color plays an important role, which far exceeds frivolous aesthetics. Colored words mean that you can use them for more than just reading. Color says: click here. On the screen, therefore, color is a functional element, an essential part of the graphic user interface. Which color is used precisely for a certain interaction seems of less importance. Judged by optical and typographical criteria, the purple or blue that indicates links since the early days of the web browser is a remarkably bad color for this functionality, as most experts in this field acknowledge. Nonetheless, one of the most respected among them, usability guru Jacob Nielsen, remarked that although it was the wrong choice, this color should not be changed because by now people had become used to it. For a medium that was hardly a decade old at the time Nielsen made his remark, it seemed a bit premature to use habituation as decisive argument, but actually it is more interesting to note that that the anonymous software developer who at some point decided for blue/purple was psychologically color blind. I for one would bet that most people, when asked which color they find most fit for accentuating a word in a sentence, would answer: red. Since the dawn of human communication, that is the color that says: attention!

Each color has a sensory charge, an emotional meaning, which can also be experienced as touch or taste or sound. The abstract painter Kandinsky said: “yellow sounds like a shrill trumpet.” In his time, around the previous turn of the century, it was a phenomenon that stirred the imagination of many: synesthesia. For some, this is an actually experienced mixing of sensory perceptions; they literally experience a sensation of taste when seeing certain colors, or they see colors when hearing certain sounds. For most of us, however, synesthesia is a mental association between what we perceive with various senses and how we experience these perceptions. Around 1900, artists were fascinated by this association. Kandinsky titled his abstract paintings in musical terms as ‘improvisations’ and ‘compositions’; the composer Hector Berlioz described a friend’s music as “claire-obscure” of sounds with a “melancholy color”; his colleague Alexander Scriabin combined sound and color in his own music by expanding his orchestra with an organ that projected colors instead of producing tones; and the futurist Carlo Carà wrote a manifesto about “painting colors, sounds and smells.”

Such ‘synesthetic’ virtuality also plays a role in the functional use of color. Red sounds loud, smells strong, tastes sharp, feels heavy. Yellow sounds clear and far, smells sweet and feels warm. Green feels safe and sounds friendly. Blue smells fresh. Graphic designers know the power of these colors and their virtual associations with sound and taste, and therefore often use them as signal colors. But they also know that one should use them wisely and moderately. Too many colors, just like too much taste or sound, leads to saturation and a loss of discerning quality. The more garish a designer’s pallet, the greater the risk of visual chaos. And that can sometimes be life-threatening. When analyzing the causes of a fatal fire at Düsseldorf airport, which killed sixteen people, design bureau MetaDesign concluded that the signs indicating the emergency exits had been badly placed and badly designed and colored. This insight was leading in Meta’s design of a new set of pictograms for the airport, in which a light green was used very selectively for pictograms associated with safety: emergency exits, first aid, alarm button. And it convinced wayfinding designer Paul Mijksenaar to use green exclusively for the indication of escape routes.

Next to typography, color is a decisive factor in the legibility and recognizability of information design. With the aim of creating visual order in the tangle of thin black lines that represent the movements of stock market quotations in traditional charts, designer Frederik Ruys translated these graphical lines into bands of color, blue for rising, red for falling quotes. The degree of rising or falling was indicated by varying the color intensity of the bands. His graph of the effects of the credit crisis on stocks quoted on the Dutch AEX, made for the Financieele Dagblad of December 20, 2008, is a textbook example of the effectiveness of color in representing complex collections of data. It also is a typical example of good virtual use of color. Red and blue are not material qualities of the numbers or the reality behind them, but colors are traditionally used to visualize associations with that reality. ‘Red numbers’ and ‘in the red’ are synonymous for loss and debt. If Ruys would have wanted to consistently stick to this kind of metaphor, he would have used green for positive results, but luckily he chose for blue, which from the vantage point of optical recognizability is the better color because the human eye can recognize its hues more easily that those of green.

Frederik Ruys

Color gives a voice to words, numbers and signs; shouting, talking or whispering. The ‘loudness’ of a color depends not just on the color itself, but also on the colors and hues that surround it. This was an essential insight after the fire at Düsseldorf airport – the signage for the escape routes did not stand out enough from the surrounding visual clutter. In a snow white winter landscape, even the most tender green of a butting leaf or the palest yellow of the first daffodil will catch the eye immediately. In a carnival parade, it will be hard to discern any color separately. So many loud voices will merge into a cacophony. Or, if arranged and directed well, into a many-voiced choir. That is what the colorists among the painters do: arrange many colors into harmonic compositions, perhaps with the odd dissonant to wake up the viewer. This is how Kandinsky described his paintings, as musical compositions in which colors represent sounds. Conversely, Louis Andriessen wrote a composition for the Christmas Issue of the Dutch Drukkersweekblad in 1967, in which color was a central aspect of the notation. He used the colors black, red and blue to each indicate a voice in this visual score. Andriessen used colors as notation, and therefore limited himself to three very distinctive hues. Thus, in his visualization of the music, he acted as a graphic designer who wants to render information in a clear and legible way. Kandinsky’s work does not have to be ‘read’ or ‘heard’ literally, but is meant to be experienced as a whole. Therefore, the painter/colorist can use a far greater range of colors, and mix them to a much greater extent than the designer. His concern is the chord, the harmony. The designer aims at contrast, at keeping each color recognizable as a single tone.

Dick Elffers

In this context, Umberto Eco remarks in his Mondriaan Lecture of May 1981 that, in order to warrant general distinctiveness, a culture can probably use no more than seven colors in a meaningful way. Everyone can agree on those seven. As soon as smaller nuances are used, disagreement and differences of interpretation arise: is this azure or ultramarine? Old rose or gold red? If you want to keep the difference between colors generally discernable, you must submit to the common denominator. This is the case with the color range of traffic signs. Due to weathering, the use of undurable paint or the surrounding street lights, the red used for prohibition signs may fade a bit towards orange or purple, but it will still be categorizable as red. And so it has to; an orange-red traffic sign does not mean “slightly prohibited” and a purple-red sign does not mean “extremely prohibited.” Red is red, prohibited is prohibited. Eco remarks that something similar can be seen in national flags: seven basic colors with which one can make just about any flag in the world.


There are two projects which have taken this fact, albeit unwittingly, as point of departure for the design of a new flag for the European Union. Rem Koolhaas and his graphic research team AMO combined all colors of all European Union members’ flags in a national order. This resulted in a kind of barcode, in which every member country is represented, but also dissolves into a colorful whole ­– the borders between the national colors fade. On the other hand, the amount of color bands is so large that it hardly matters anymore in which order they are displayed. AMO’s flag, therefore, is symbolic, but not iconic in the sense of resulting in an immediately recognizable and unambiguous form. Students of graphic designer Annelys de Vet did something similar, but differently. They too collected all colors of all EU flags and ordered them based on ‘popularity’, the frequency each color was used in the flags. This produced an image quite like AMO’s, a kind of barcode. But they went on to reduce all color hues to their respective basic colors, resulting in a flag with six colors in six bands of varying width – red was most frequent, black least. This flag follows Eco’s insight and has the potential of becoming iconic: generally recognizable and unmistakable.

Annelys de Vet

The national flags also show that ‘virtual color’, meaning color that is not a physical characteristic of a material or object, can become ‘real.’ Red, white and blue, horizontally arranged is the Netherlands. Blue, white and red, vertically arranged, is France. A yellow prohibition sign will not be recognized as such. A turquoise emergency exit sign will be overlooked. The colors and the objects – flags, traffic signs – are entangled to such an extent in these cases, that we have come to experience the combinations as natural as the blue of the sky, the red of fire, the green of grass and the yellow of sand. Habituation plays a large part here. The same goes for the use of color in packaging for various products. Anyone who has ever entered a supermarket abroad will have noticed it: that they weren’t able to find certain basic products because their packaging was in different colors then back home. In the Netherlands, milk comes in blue packs, whatever the brand. If he sees a yellow milk pack on the dairy shelf abroad, a Dutchman thinks: vanilla custard. When Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn introduced a new packaging design for its sugar, I wasn’t able to find that product for a while. The dominant red color of that design means ‘salt’ in my head. As long as I can remember, sugar has come in packaging with blue print.

Another good example of virtual use of color in packaging is the blue of sanitary napkins. Not a single brand of sanitary napkins will ever show a spot of red. And in TV ads for this product its effectiveness is not demonstrated with tomato juice – without doubt the best stand-in color for blood –, but with a clear blue fluid. The use of blue in this case is a textbook example of a color-euphemism. The ad shows hygienic blue but means blood red. Blue is clean, clear, clinical, anorganic, light, without smell. Blue is not just optically the opposite of red, but also psychologically. In connection to all products that are associated with shame in our culture – sanitary napkins, toilet paper, air fresheners – you will see clear, light colors instead of dark, heavy hues. The clean color tones down the blush of shame.

Feelings have color. Being in a brown study. Seeing red. A gray mood. Films can use this correlation in sophisticated ways. Since all color that fades turns to shades of brown, we associate such colors with age. Therefore, historical films often use sepia colors, which evoke the sensation of seeing an old picture album. For economical reasons early comic books were printed in unmixed primary colors – the halftones that would facilitate color mixing were too expensive for the few dimes such booklets were sold for. Director Warren Beatty used the habituation that was the result of this: the rigorously limited and harsh color pallet he shot his movie around comic book hero Dick Tracey in made that we experience it as a cartoon, despite the live action.

It is remarkable that we stop being conscious of such color biases after a while, regardless of whether it concerns soft sepia tones or hard primary colors. Our eyes seem to adjust and gradually accept the virtual colors of the movie we are watching as real. This is not just a psychological effect, but also a neurological property of the eye, as anyone knows who has ever stepped from a predominantly colored environment back into the world. It happened to me when I entered a ski lift, years ago, a bluish Perspex bubble. It didn’t surprise me that I saw the world in a blue hue, but what I didn’t realize was that on our way up the world gradually reassumed its normal colors. The shock came when I stepped outside the ski lift: the snow clad slopes had suddenly become rosy, the blue sky had turned deep red and my brother’s yellow ski suit was hard green. The ski lift’s blue filter had installed itself in my brain!

This brings me to conclude that in essence, all color is virtual. Color is not a material, but an immaterial property of physical objects. Color is how objects and materials reflect light. But just as much, the colors that we perceive are dependent on how our brain interprets this light. Are we looking through rosy glasses or a blue bubble? The virtual world is in essence everything we think before we see it, or everything that we think when seeing something. It is the realm of the imagination, which can literally color our real life sensations and perceptions. However ‘unreal,’ the virtual is closely connected to cultural standards and assumptions, as may be clear from the examples above. These cultural notions form a reality by itself and they shape reality as we experience it. In that sense, the ‘virtual’ codes that govern our view of the world are as real as reality can get. Also the color blind know what ‘red’ means and that the grass is green, even if they can’t see it. Artists and designers use color in this vein, to trigger thoughts, feelings, moods that may be as virtual as an on-line avatar, but which represent a mental reality nonetheless. They show us not how the world is, but how we can or should experience it. Although one can analyze this virtuality and describe the way it works with sounds, smells, colors and their synesthetic intermingling, it remains very hard to define it. The virtual is there and not there. It is within our minds, and just like color not a physical property of the world outside of us. For the virtual, we could therefore use the words of Dutch painter and graphic designer Dick Elffers, when he attempted to describe the essence of color: “The eyes listen to color, and with the eyes it is answered. For color, there are no words.”

max bruinsma