What Josef Taught Me (or nerdy talk about color)

Each designer here at 2e has a unique approach to how they solve communication challenges for our clients. What I’ve found is that we each have a favorite visual “vice” that we go to for any given solution. For some it’s geometry or negative space. For others it’s pattern, illustration, or photography. Personally, my favorite and most basic tool has always been color. The psychology of it, the subtleties of it, and the endeavor of choosing just the right palette; these are what intrigue me the most and, I believe, have the most impact on a visual execution. This approach stems directly from my first exposure to color theory while an undergrad in design school. Just imagine it, an entire course dedicated purely to the study of color. Sounds simple, right? Hmmm… you decide.

The foundation of this course was a full study of the work of Josef Albers — a teacher and artist from the Bauhaus school in Germany who later taught at Yale. His famous book, Interaction of Color, published in 1963, has been highly influential on visual thinkers for decades. The cornerstone of his approach focuses on thinking critically about the perception of color in relation to adjacent colors. The way that colors play together — a constant exercise of subtle comparisons and differences in hue, value, and saturation — are what can change the viewer’s perception of any given image.


Another critical factor to consider when working with color is the psychology of it. We, as humans, perceive color as a visual cue into an emotion whether we realize it or not: each person’s interpretation of a color can vary based on their life experiences. In addition, the context of how that color is used (shape, juxtaposition of other colors around it, variations in size and spacing) can greatly affect the outcome of the communication.

The general model of color psychology, pioneered by Carl Jung, relies on six basic principles (shared from Wikipedia since I couldn’t find my course notebook from 1997):

  • Color can carry specific meaning.
  • Color meaning is either based in learned meaning or biologically innate meaning.
  • The perception of a color causes evaluation automatically by the person perceiving.
  • The evaluation process forces color-motivated behavior.
  • Color usually exerts its influence automatically.
  • Color meaning and effect has to do with context as well.

Color is a tool, just like typography, messaging, photography, design software, and html code. It’s a part of how we can communicate a story. And the intricate nuances of color and how to work with it are integral to the way that designers put forth solutions.

My favorite playground is smack dab in the middle of the color wheel, where anything can happen. Just look at any paint swatch display at Home Depot and understand the possibilities. Blue isn’t just blue. It’s “Snow-capped Mountain,” “Pensive Sky,” or “Azure Dream” (it’s actually someone’s job to name these colors).

Even before shape or words, the first interaction with a brand is color. It’s primitive and instinctual. What colors do you think of when you think of Kodak, Coca-Cola, or UPS? Some brands are so synonymous with color that they own it. That’s how powerful it can be. Color has a voice without saying a thing. It can be loud or quiet. It can soothe or interrupt. If our client is launching a life-changing product, we aren’t going to recommend we convey that message with beige and grey. We are going to look at what colors their competitors are using, and find a unique one that will scream their name before they even say a thing. It’s a simple first step towards making a difference. What color will make a difference for your brand?

Extra Credit:

If you haven’t seen the Interaction of Color book by Albers, it’s worth a look. The first edition includes 150 original silkscreen prints along with the printed volume, as Albers didn’t trust offset printing to match his colors accurately. If you’re looking for an original 1963 edition, last I looked, it’s going for about $5,000 on eBay. For a more comfortable version, you can find a new edition for around $150 at your favorite bookstore, or download the anniversary edition iPad app here for thirteen bucks.

If you’re near 2e, go to the St. Louis Art Museum, like my family did, for up close and personal yellow inspiration from Albers’ Homage to the Square – Wondering. Or find Homage to the Square: Aurora at the Kemper Art Museum on the campus of Washington University. Photo Credit: http://www.slam.org/

If you’re near 2e, go to the St. Louis Art Museum for up close and personal yellow inspiration from Albers’ “Homage to the Square: Wondering.” Or find “Homage to the Square: Aurora” at the Kemper Art Museum on the campus of Washington University. Photo Credit: http://www.slam.org/

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