Michael Bierut | Essays


Moses Harris, Illustration from The Natural Systems of Colours, London, 1766. (Source: Sarah Lowengard, The Creation of Color in Eighteenth Century Europe)

The first step, they say, is admitting you have a problem.

A long time ago, when I used to do a lot of freelancing, I got a call from a friend of mine who had just gotten a job at a well-known cosmetics company. She had an assignment for me. Her company was famous for using a color wheel — a specially printed diagram with dozens of colors arranged in concentric circles — at their department store counters. The time had come, as it did periodically, to update the colors. Various experts had been consulted, all the requested changes had been tabulated, and all that remained was for someone to designate specifications for the colors that were changing. This task was seen as more or less clerical, and kind of a pain in the ass. “We know exactly what we want,” my friend told me, “but no one here has time to do it.” She asked if I would do it, and said they would pay me $2,500.

Now, this sort of thing didn’t exactly seem like graphic design to me — there was no typography involved, for one thing — but $2,500 was a stupendous amount of money for me at the time, probably the most I had ever been offered for a single project. I said yes. I was told I could buy whatever supplies I needed, so I bought every color specification guide I could find, even splurging on exotic imports from Germany and Japan. Finally, one day after work, I sat down at our kitchen table, with my pages of notes on the revisions on one side, my multiple specification guides on the other, and the color wheel in the middle. We even happened to own a matte-black Richard Sapper-designed Artemide Tizio lamp, which coincidentally was the exact model that was used at the cosmetic counters where the color wheel would be displayed. I trained it on the task at hand and got down to work.

Or, at least I tried to work. Instead, I found myself staring helplessly at mess before me, clueless as to how to begin. There were just so many chips, so many samples, so many ambiguous notes from the client: this color was supposed to “pop” more, this one was supposed to be “warmer but more neutral,” and so forth. It was overwhelming. And, in the middle of it all sat the color wheel. For the first time I wondered, what was it really for? How did it help women choose and apply their makeup? Why were so many colors necessary? How could anyone tell that colors looked out of date? Did these colors really look the same to other people as they did to me? And how did they look to me, anyway?

I sat for hours, disconsolately shuffling color chips around, getting more and more confused and despondent. Finally, my wife Dorothy, who had been trying to ignore my heaving sighs, came over. “Can you tell me again what this is all about?” she asked. Dorothy is not a designer and has never taken a single class in art or design, so I explained carefully. To my surprise, she responded with enthusiasm: yes, of course she knew this particular color wheel, all of her friends did, in fact she herself thought that it was out of date, and had thought so for some time. I was amazed. Really? She nodded. “Now, what exactly are you supposed to be doing?” I showed her the particulars of my assignment, and by way of example indicated a particularly vexing instruction from the client: “They say they want this one to be more like a soft…” (I had to refer to my notes at this point) “…celadon.”

I had looked up celadon in the dictionary (“a pale yellow-greyish green”) but it wasn’t much help. Yellow, and grey, and green: really? That's three colors, godammit! I showed Dorothy the chips I was considering and she snorted in derision. “You think those are celadon? Let me see what else you have.” She leaned over my shoulder and picked out a few options. “These look nice,” she said. She was right. They did look nice. She asked if she could sit down and pick out some more. And some more after that. It was fun for her, and she was good at it. Eventually she designed the whole wheel, and for the next five years or so, women at cosmetic counters across America chose their makeup based on colors that my wife Dorothy picked out at our kitchen table.

That is when I began to realize that I had a case of chromatophobia, fear of color. From my earliest days as a designer I loved black and white. Such authority, such decisiveness. To this day, any collection of my favorite personal projects — posters, book covers, packaging — marks me as a follower of Henry Ford, another enthusiast for wheels who famously told buyers of his Model T that they could have whatever color they wanted as long as it was black. Every now and then, I dip my toe in the vast rainbow-hued sea. It usually comes up with no more than a little bit of red and an even littler bit of yellow. I admire people who can use color with authority. To me, they seem to be able to swim like fishes.

They say any fear can be surmounted, and I hope one day to begin to conquer mine. Until then, it’s back to the comfort of my nice dry towel, well away from the water’s edge — suitably striped, of course, in my two favorite colors: black and white.

This piece was written as an introduction to Color Works: An Essential Guide to Understanding and Applying Color Design Principles by Eddie Opara, to be published next year by Rockport.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

Comments [12]

Great anecdote, Michael. It's probably a good thing that you don't count yourself among the color-mavens - there are plenty of around already to swoon over celadon (present company very much included).

But don't worry: in the West, color-fearers are in a clear majority. I love this little book by British artist David Batchelor called Chromophobia. It's all about the entrenched Western suspicion of everything colorful as a proxy for the queer, childish, feminine, hysterical or irrational:

As for the variety implicit in color wheels, I wrote a 3-part series for Imprint about that history which readers might dig:

Thanks again for the great post.

Best, Jude
Jude Stewart

Great story. It's relieving to hear that other designers are "chromophobes," but it makes sense when any of us are taught to design in monochrome ("if it works in black and white, it'll work in color!") It's a constraint that's been steadily loosening, though I still get nervous about new logos that are based on gradients.

I agree that some people, though, really are magicians with color. The ability to change a foreground color dramatically by tweaking the background color slightly remains an impressive feat to me.
Glen Isip

The best way to overcome this is to teach it!

I used to work with color intuitively. Then I had to teach it. So I learned it (better).

Now, I still work with color intuitively but, I can reference various systems when I need too and I know what is happening.

Beautifully written. I feel comforted knowing that I'm not alone in my fear of color! Thanks for the wonderful post!

Reducing the use and execution of black and white to a fear of color is slightly insulting to the use of black and white as a strategy. I use black and white for many reasons. The least of which is the fear of color. In addition to what you've said, back and white can at times present content, situations, experiences, etc in a manner that allows the looker, reader, listener, taster, etc the most flexibility in generating their own conclusion–which is a beautiful gift designers can offer. And, of course black and white can be as expressive as color depending on its relationships to form, context, scale, type, etc.

Thanks Michael. Your story highlights the fact that designers (and everyone else, really) work with certain strengths and weaknesses, and it's the sum of all those strengths and weakness that gives us each our unique point of view.

I admire color daily and have enjoyed specifying color throughout my career. There are some people, though, who simply blow me away by their confidence and originality with color; Hella Jongerius, Maira Kalman and the great Alexander Girard are just three who come to mind.
Randy Willoughby

Michael, you might have a phobia. Or, as some have said, you just might naturally prefer your comfort zone which could be more normal than unusual. A tendency, or preference perhaps.

Ralph Baker, one of my college art professors once said that my style of painting and use of color had a graphic sensibility, meaning that my choices were more about value than color. He noted that we see in values first – we recognize highlights and shadows before we recognize color. This may explain why we have no problems looking at black and white photographs and believing they are still true reflections.

He challenged me to experiment with color more freely (so I could learn to swim with the fishes). It was good advice. But my natural tendency, inclination and preference remains.
Steve Sandstrom

I can work with color, but this story reminds me of my college days. Everything I did was black and white. Finally, in Printmaking, my professor wanted me to add color. Probably so I could add separations to my knowledge, but I never did. It wasn't until color computers were ubiquitous that color became easy for me to use.

Joe Moran

Rather — fear of the letter “r”.
Michael, You are an amazing designer with a great sense of humor.
Chromatophobia is missing the letter “r” in your post and in your link to the post.
See: That is when I began to realize that I had a case of ch_omatophobia, fear of color.
Thanks “!”
Carl W. Smith

Carl, thanks, we fixed that.
Michael Bierut

Thank you Michael for such an interesting story.
I found it interesting because In my case my partner(Im not married yet) also helps and she does it very well. She is a Anthropologist & Reiki Master.

What happened to you is lovely, our partner in life has the ability or knowledge of style that we agreed without knowing any of the "rules" of design. Also is great how they can complement us in something that we are lacking.

Congratulations for having an amazing wife!

Jobs | July 18