September 8, 2015
John C. O'Rear, RID, IIDA, EDAC

Okay, so tell me, how many times have you been asked that question?  Most “regular folks and aesthetic civilians” will give you a definitive answer in the primary or secondary hue category – something simple that does not require a lot of effort.  We are taught in our youth that we need to have an answer for that question, so we feel forced to give an answer. But what if you didn’t have a favorite color?  I will never forget my professor in college telling us interior design students that as designers, we should not have a favorite, because that would influence the selections we make for our clients.  He explained that our job is to listen to our clients and select color/material palettes for them that will give them the function and aesthetic that works best for their needs. 

I would like to talk about the selection of color/material palettes and the forces that give us what is finally built.  The forces we will focus on here are the “folks” (owner, design professional, contractor), the “stuff” (what is available) and the “truth” (the never ending debate about how color affects people and what the correct color selection should be).  Before we start you should know a little about the source of this information.

I am an old guy that grew up as a “West Texas redneck” and ended up an interior designer.  Lord knows how that happened.  For the last 22 years, I’ve been a healthcare interior designer.  As a kid, my grandmother, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma School of Interior Design, and I used to discuss color theory and how color should be used in a space and in art.  As a teenager, I worked at a sports car restoration shop where color was critical, because who wants a boring sports car?  As a young adult, I made my living as a residential/commercial painter and dry wall professional, where I learned just how important it is to understand what your customer’s definition of "beige” is.  Nothing like having to repaint a house for free because of a misunderstanding like that.  When times got ugly in the 80s, I drove a semi-tanker truck coast-to-coast, hauling hazardous chemicals - where color makes a huge difference.  You never want to confuse red, green and yellow.  As a design professional, I’ve had to select many color palettes for many different clients, as well as study color theories and keep up with color trends.  Needless to say, I have spent a great deal of my life focused on color, so maybe it would be helpful for me to pass on a little of what I learned.  After all, it would be selfish not to!

Let’s start with the “folks.”  Folks are all the people that influence the colors used in the built environment.  The owner, the “man with the gold that makes the rules,” has a wide variety of potential forces that influence the color of a space.  I’ve seen male CEOs pass the responsibility of color selection to a female coworker, simply because of a belief that there is a genetic predisposition to color knowledge that females have and males do not.  After all, as Jeff Foxworthy jokes about how unlikely it would be to hear a couple of rednecks say something like, “Hey Bob, you ain’t go’n to wear that shirt with them shoes are you?” I’ve seen owners make color selections based on their own personal favorite colors, or colors that they hate for some reason or another.  I’ve also seen owners that really care about their customers enough to separate themselves from their personal taste and make a decision based on some sort of logic, whether that be an article that they read, advice from their design professional or other source, they try to take a logical look at color. 

The design professional also brings a wide array of color influence to the table.  It’s been my experience that designers tend to try to base their color selections on their experience and study of their client’s desired outcome, rather than their own personal favorite colors.  Designers are bombarded every day with theories and opinions on what color things should be.  The funniest thing I think designers do is try to select color palettes that are timeless.  I have been trying to produce a timeless color palette for about the last 34 years.  I have not been successful.

The contractor is the one tasked with building the product.  They tend to make color suggestions to the designer and the owner that have more of a financial or practical basis, rather than an aesthetic or intellectual basis.  Sometimes it is difficult to argue with a suggestion like that.

Next, let’s talk about the “stuff.”  Frankly, it is the materials that are available.  Most building finish materials have standard colors that they are offered in.  Those colors are dictated by what sells the best.  Custom colors are available, but I have found that like cold blue fluorescent light, custom colors are “the devil.”  It’s just easier to use what is available, rather than force a logistical and coordination nightmare.

The most interesting of all aspects of color selection is the “truth” about what is the correct color for the application.  Actually, all that we have talked about so far is the truth, but in this case, I’m going to define the truth about what is the right color selection for an application as being “the heart-felt logical choice of color for an application based on all of one’s knowledge and experience.”  It is unique for everyone.  No matter how much we try to nail down that perfect mixture of hue, value, and intensity for any particular instance, we will not be successful.  As soon as we think we have it, it will change.  Research may help guide us, but in the end our human ineffable way that we evaluate all the variables in a situation and come up with a solution is what will produce the “truth.”

Well there we have it - another non-definitive article about color!  We looked at the forces that ultimately decide the color of the built environment – “folks”, “stuff” and “truth”.  Folks will be trying to define the truth about what color stuff should be from now on, so dive in and don’t be afraid of color!  It is one of the spices of life.

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