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31 Dangerous Color


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On this spread: Four cautionary axioms relating to specific color issues, each followed by a few words in support of or against throwing caution to the wind.

DO NOT confuse the eye by letting hues compete for attention. The eye might feel an uneasy tug-of-war when, for example, contemplating a layout that features a brightly colored headline, a brightly colored illustration, and—you guessed it—a brightly colored backdrop.

EXCEPTION: Go ahead and use colors that fight and bite each other for attention if you’re creating a work of art or design that is meant to generate notes of tension, chaos, or celebration gone wild.

DO NOT allow bright complementary hues of the same value to touch. Intense complementary hues that share both a value and an in-common border are notoriously capable of producing an almost palpable visual buzz where the colors meet. Most people find this visual vibration anything but pleasant.

EXCEPTION: If you’re trying to capitalize on a resurgence of the 1960s psychedelic look, then yes, by all means, let the same-value complementary hues of your artwork interact with as many shared boundaries as you like.

DO NOT let poor value structure play a part in any work of design or art you create. Value is critical in letting the eye and the brain figure out what’s being seen. Good value structure also helps guide viewers’ attention in sensible ways throughout the components of layouts and illustrations.

EXCEPTION: There are few—if any—exceptions to this principle. Value simply must be a primary consideration when applying color, and you must make conscientious choices when establishing the values that you’ll apply to any work of design or art.

DO NOT use palettes that your target audience will find uninteresting or unattractive. If the colors you apply to your client’s promotional and informational material do not resonate with their target audience, then what’s the point? Who wins? So get to know your target audience and select a palette that appeals to them. Always. (More about getting to know your audience on page 152.)

EXCEPTION: If you’re a graphic designer working for a client, there are no exceptions to this principle. If you’re a designer or an artist creating a work of art for yourself, then it’s up to you to decide whether or not the colors you’re using ought to appeal to people other than yourself.

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