Coloring for Adults

My inspiration for writing a blog centered on color is two-fold, in part due to an in office skirmish over color choices for our latest application venture, partly because of a rising web and mobile trend, gradients. 

I’ll get into the specifics later, but any conversation on color must begin with (1) exactly what color is and (2) how web and mobile design has changed color theory. 

Color as we know it is really color as we see it. The traditional red through violet range of light waves is the wavelengths that are visible to our naked eye. Our anatomy is advanced all right, but waves like radio waves, gamma rays and x-rays are among the light waves our eye doesn't pick up. This, however, doesn't mean we are short on colors. A modern computer screen displays over 16 million colors (making the task of choosing three for your app quite the challenge.) 

The traditional theory we are taught in middle school art class of the Red, Blue, and Yellow primary colors producing the secondary colors Green, Purple, and Orange, is no longer the case in the technology color land. Web and mobile color display is based on the primary colors Red, Green and Blue (RGB). When these three colors are displayed in pixelated pointilism, it produces the secondary colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK). These two color profiles are quite distinct, with RGB as the standard for web and mobile display and CMYK standard for anything going to print. 

But, this isn’t where the theory ends for technology. Colors are also determined using hue, chroma, and lightness. Hue is the simplest to determine, as it's the color as we think of it on the color wheel. Lightness is also an easier one, determined by how light the color is on a scale from white to black. Chroma is where colors can get a little muddy, literally. This is the level of clarity or intensity of the color. A hue with a lower purity of chroma will look more gray, and a hue with a very pure chroma might be overwhelmingly intense to the eye.

All of this said, choosing colors for mobile and web design has many more layers than simply how the eye perceives the color. It’s about emotion, preference, overall design, trends, longevity, readability, and UX. 

All of these have been hot button topics in the office as we land on a final color palette for RDV. Following an hour long conversation where I tried to convince Brandon that primary colors (in their middle school understanding) were not the way to go, I delved back into the RGB spectrum to find a better solution. Ultimately, the cohesion and diversity of the color scheme for RDV was trump to both Brandon’s and my personal feelings about favorite colors; after all, designing an app is NOT like decorating a room. Bright hues with higher purity in chroma are by definition more eye-catching and can make a button stand out in mobile, but maybe should be reserved for children’s rooms and post-it notes in every other context.  

Even in our pursuit to pick colors that we didn’t personally find offensive yet that would speak to a broad and inclusive target audience, we found ourselves asking, “How much personal preference SHOULD be excluded from the conversation?”

If we were following trend and going for modern, bold, bright, and enticing, our app (per our developer’s suggestion) would be in full use of gradients. In my opinion, gradients are one of the biggest design trends of the last year and seem to still be going strong. Perhaps one the biggest players in the field, Instagram, leads the bandwagon with a new, very colorful (read: tacky) psychedelic gradient app icon. But, they aren’t the only ones: of the 35 app icons on my iPhone, 14 include gradients. I’ll admit the subtler gradients used for depth on app icons like Messages or WhatsApp are significantly less offensive than, say, Apple Music or Instagram.

This is not just a trend reserved for mobile; it is becoming a go-to for websites and graphic design in general. Just take a look at Spotify, JAKTStripe, or NYC Pride, to name a few. Meanwhile, the market for gradient-generating apps is having its field day with the influx of new users and new traction for a color embellishment that frankly reminds me of Lisa Frank notebooks circa 2001. So, I put my foot down on this one. It’s one thing to choose colors based on research and user information, but it’s another to lose my creative values as a designer. 

I think that’s really at the heart of it all. As soon as my opinion and voice are overruled completely by trend and online data, there would be no purpose for me anyway. The data would show the colors to choose and every app being developed would look exactly the same. My goal, and our goal at Talos, isn’t to create an app that looks the same, functions the same, or, god forbid, uses an on-trend color gradient. We want to create an app that is sleek, well-composed, and, most of all, timeless in the face of quick changing color winds. 

Our first crack at this big goal is RDV, which will be available in the Apple App Store in early December. Follow us on Twitter @LetsRDV for the latest updates about our development sprints and links to the application when it becomes available. 

And, of course, a shout out to JAKT, our beloved gradient-using development firm, which is developing RDV.