The Challenge of Choosing Colors
Choosing colors for a project involves intuition. It’s a matter of looking and feeling, stepping back to see if it’s working, tweaking if necessary. Mostly. Having an understanding of color theory can be a great aid in figuring out why something doesn’t seem to be working, or for solving particular design problems.
In 2010, I was commissioned to create six features for the Frick Chemistry Lab at Princeton University. The walls were installed at both ends of three long corridors, each corridor on one of three floors. The challenge was to use different colors for each wall that were, nevertheless, related and could also serve as a way-finding device.
It made some intuitive sense to use complementary colors on each floor. Complementary colors are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. Blue is the opposite of orange, for example, yellow the opposite of purple, and so on. However, I wanted to avoid the primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—for two reasons. The first is that there is a certain garishness to primaries. I associate primary colors with circuses, children’s toys, and fast food restaurants. The second is that certain color combinations also have particular associations. For example, in the U.S., the complementaries red and green remind many people of Christmas. Purple and yellow can conjure Easter.
I ultimately solved the problem by using approximate tertiary complementaries:
This tactic resulted in a sequence of colors that were jewel-like and refined. Each color is richer in contrast to its opposite, and each creates an identity for its end of the corridor.