Imagine how expressive everyday images could be if we better understood the color wheel and relied less on stock filters to add meaning to our pictures.
The color wheel is a sacred object, a pure symbol of the intersection of science, art and logic. For decades, we’ve been trying to make the wheel work on computers—closing the blinds, calibrating monitors, taping Pantone swatches to the right of the screen and crossing our fingers—and our attempts have been imperfect at best.
If you ever look inside a Photoshop document, at the guts of the data, all the pieces that make up a document, you’ll see the result of decades of wrangling with the complexities of digital color, implementations of the International Color Consortium recommendations, ways to specify cyan correction and the like. There’s not one approach to color, but many.
For several years, the web made good color impossible. Those 216 “web safe” colors led to some bad decisions. Every early-days web designer has, secreted away on a Zip disk somewhere, just enough white-text-on-purple-background pages to ruin their credibility. Back then, nothing really worked; a page that looked seamless on a Mac would be yellowish and jagged on a PC and vice versa. After a while, everyone gave up on color and used horizontal lines, white space and drop-shadows, which was probably for the best.
But now, of course, computers are wise to color, and in general, a bright reddish-green one place will not be a damp greenish-red somewhere else (outdoor signs and projection screens excepted). Designers may, and should, quibble over the state of digital color, but when even a cheap phone can display a few million shades of any given color, it’s clear that things have changed. And thus you’d think that interaction designers could breathe easy. Color works now. It was almost a golden age for color—except for the advent of the consumer filter.
The idea was simple: Take a picture with your lousy phone camera and it looks ragged and washed-out. One might say, “Get a better camera and learn to use it.” But app developers know that’s a lot to ask, and besides, it wouldn’t sell more apps. So they came up with a novel solution: add a filter to the photo to make it look like the results of old chemical processes—after 20 years in a shoebox.
Starting with apps like Hipstamatic, and later with the wildly popular Instagram, this new approach to making photos look bad in interesting ways unleashed an unstoppable force across the world. Something about being able to switch color spaces just blew people’s minds. It became a way to add meaning to a picture, to hint at the kinds of emotions and thoughts you hoped to evoke when you took the photo in the first place. Of course, it infuriated some people, but it was also pretty cool, and yes, it led to a nearly insufferable sameness across thousands of pictures of salads and polka-dotted dresses.
Imagine what else users could do if they knew more—that is, if they understood the color wheel. They could make their own filters, to start, noting that “these are my sad colors, my happy colors, my dinner colors and my polka-dotted dress colors.” Filters could be more than a way to evoke the past. They could become a new form of expression—social, shareable palettes.
Of course, there would be a lot of shiny, tacky approaches. That always happens at first. But people would learn. The difference between today and a few years ago is that tens of millions of people are suddenly aware of, invested in and doing things with color. There is a broad range of bright new opportunities here.
Read the entire June issue of Print to read this article and more, including Steven Heller’s discussion on the color red and insights from the Eisner-awarding winning comic book colorist, Dave Stewart.