Thursday, 18 June 2009

Colour psychology vs chubby middle-manager

A lot of the work I do is graphic design.

Now, it's my sense (forlorn and cynical being that I am) that lots of people misunderstand the job of a graphic designer. Lots of people think that it is our job to make things look pretty.

Okay – you may say that our job is to do whatever our client tells us to do. But I'd counter that with, well, why the hell did our client need to hire us in the first place, then? Monkeys are a hell of a lot cheaper.

(Er, actually, it seems that they're not)


I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked by a colleague or client to change colours in a design-in-progress.

'Oh, I don't really like that orange,' they'll muse. Or, 'I think that logo would look better on blue instead of green.'

You can see where this is going. Show me a colour and I'll show you someone who doesn't like it or would prefer another. If we start down this road, we end up with a product that is customised to the aesthetic taste of this one person.

That's a bad thing.

Because colour (just like written tone, typeface, choice of images...) is a communication tool. The colour choices one makes have an enormous effect (whether conscious or not) on the viewer.

Just as you wouldn't (please, please, God, no) print a murder appeal in the hideous comic sans font, so you wouldn't advertise, say, aromatherapy massages on a bright red and yellow background.

Them colours ain't very relaxin'.

Such obvious cases are all very well – so much so that almost anyone with half a brain grasps them instinctively.

Case study: Chubby, Nervous Middle-Manager

The problem tends to emerge when there's a disconnect between client/colleague and audience. When the person who's suggesting changes to a design is fundamentally different from the audience for which the design is intended.

Imagine, if you will, a chubby, nervous middle-manager in his 50s commissioning a flyer to attract 16-20 year-olds to an activities day his disgusting panini-manufacturing company is sponsoring.

Chubby, nervous middle-manager doesn't have a great deal of imagination, perhaps. He's outside his comfort zone with regard to mass communications, which only serves to exaggerate a tendency towards micro-management and risk-aversion.

A recipe for design hell.

Chubby, nervous middle-manager will, I guarantee, tremble with horror on seeing whatever design you might put in front of him – no matter how well-thought-out and customised to its audience.

He will proceed to dismember it with a series of requests that are geared towards making the design more to his own taste. More like something he recognises and is comfortable with. We're talking underlining. Pastel shades. Conservative colour palettes.

If you're particularly unlucky, he may even start suggesting that you add clipart.

The risk in such a situation is that we end up in a 'taste-off' – whereby clients and designer alike argue for their own aesthetic preferences. An argument in which, clearly, nobody's going to triumph.

Thank god, then, for colour psychology.  <--  Go on, read all about it.

Visceral responses to colour are hardwired into the human brain in much the same way as responses to, say, Dale Winton.

Different colours have different effects on brain function: emotion, mood, even concentration. There's actually science (y'know, Science ...) to back this up.

So when chubby, nervous middle-manager suggests mauve instead of magenta, one's only chance of avoiding aesthetic impasse is to talk colour psychology. To give reasoned arguments to justify the colour choices one has made.

Why am I telling you all this, anyway – neurotic designerly self-justification aside? Well, I thought I'd give you some background to tomorrow's post, in which I propose to show you how – in the world of colour psychology – even a relatively subtle shift of hue can have glaring effects.


Tune in tomorrow, won't ya?

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