Colour use by designers






Notes & Thoughts on issues of colour-use by designers (Excerpts)

The notion that “Draughtsmen may be made, but colourists are born”[i] for me, is a myth. Confidence is the trait behind someone ‘being good with colour’; and confidence is most often the result of practise. How certain people have come to be confident with imagining, choosing, matching, and mixing colours is a matter of development; I have yet to be convinced by any arguments for physiological differences or psychological predisposition to confidence with colour, as Eugene Delacroix suggests in his quote.

There are significant differences between the practices of, for instance, textile design and architecture. By nature, the two operate with different scales, different end-uses, different materials, and different methodology. But should the approaches be so different when it comes to colour? In practice they are; with one, colour is normally the starting point, and the other, often the final consideration. This may be over-simplistic, but whether due to the rigours of established practice, or perceived importance, there is a difference; yet colour affects both profoundly (be it in the form of applied colour such as paints or dyes, or the intrinsic colours of raw materials).

Most designers recognise this immediately as an anomaly. And so conversations usually proceed to the why’s and wherefore’s of comparative practices.
It would seem simply inconceivable to some disciplines of making art and designing, that colour could be treated as a separate process to the enabling of the whole. Many areas begin with coloured materials (e.g. textiles – especially woven), so judgements and considerations have to be given from the start. The complexity of designing a building may give rise to the compartmental approaches that separate parts from the whole, and lead to specialisations that have little to do with light and colour. Consequently, for many designers it is allowed to become an afterthought.

I am suggesting there is widespread poor colour-use in much three-dimensional design; and simultaneously I want to challenge the view that colour-use is personal, solely intuitive, and unteachable. It may be a tall order, but consciousness-raising is at the heart of this. This is not a call for more colour, but more confident engagement with colour-use, through practise, and being at ease with the integral nature of colour in our work.


It is strange that designers and architects learn their early practise in a studio environment – at art, design or architectural school. And yet some of the most basic principles of studio learning – developed from the craft system of such things as the medieval guilds – is missing: the practise of all elements of the discipline or trade.

Assured handling comes from practise; and practise, from confidence to experiment. The familiarity with the results of our previous experimenting, becomes our ‘knowing’.
Little or no colour-practice leaves us relying on minimal reserves of skill, knowledge or experience, and so leads to many designers using colour simplistically, crudely or tokenistically, when refinement, care or appropriateness is called for.

It is probably a natural condition to concentrate more on our strengths than our perceived weaknesses; we need encouragement, and value accorded to our endeavours in areas of uncertainty. And if something is perceived as important, then we tend to accord appropriate time and effort.

The ‘feedback’ gained from handling materials, understanding inherent properties, supports appropriate specification and use. With alienation from the means of production, it is increasingly difficult for designers to have this input; they have to seek it for its value. Much more common, is for the confines of specialisation to separate us from the sources that nourish understanding; a loss of connections to the whole.

The example of using handtools shows a mixture of being taught and learning for oneself; the action of your own body, and the resistance of the materials you are working with, are first-hand experiences. There is a holism in the weaving together of the explicit and the implicit. It makes us realise how naturally we process complex situations, without resorting to ‘professional methodology’. The ‘ordinariness’ about commonplace human responses and processes belies the sophistication operating.

We exhibit our ‘knowledge’ in our spontaneous and intuitive actions of everyday living. We often can’t describe what it is that we do, or unpick the process accurately. Sometimes we find it interesting to try – attempting to observe one’s-self; and out of the ‘ordinariness’ comes reflexive understanding – realising your part in something.

Demonstration and imitation – learning what someone else has already learnt – is a significant part of learning. It’s what we do from childhood onwards. But “imitation is not simply the reproduction of observed behaviour. You have to perceive what is important to the demonstration.”[ii] Whilst imitating, we reflect on our own performance.

How to achieve the fusion of knowledge, learnt and practised skills, imagination and understanding is the difficult objective of design education. Donald Schon writes of professional education emphasising problem-solving rather than problem-finding, which leads to an uncritical dialogue with the status quo.
The paradox and predicament of learning to design is that much requires ‘learning by doing’, which doesn’t fit well strictly with the traditions of academic teaching. Design has areas that are resistant to quantifying, and practices that yield results, but cannot be analysed in the traditional manners of academic ‘rigour’.


“Colour design has been denied as an integral part of contemporary architecture…”[iii] Whilst obviously a western view, this rings true to me. The notion that complexity can be managed with reductionism explains why the ‘whole’ may suffer, and ‘parts’ become neglected.
The artist David Batchelor describes “the rhetorical subordination of colour to the rule of line and the higher concerns of the mind”, and writes: “colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture…… masks a fear; of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable.”

Architectural Minimalism can be seen to have elements of ‘decolouring’. It continued modernism’s abstract stylistic restraint, and use of bare materials, but allied this with ‘spiritual exhortations to ‘voluntary poverty’ amid conspicuous consumption.’[iv] Perhaps it is to pay for the abundance in our lives.
Parallels can also be found in Mies van der Rohe’s ideal of ‘almost nothing’ (beinahe nichts), ‘reducing form to silence.’[v] But this is an individual approach, rather than the collective, or social, approach of modernism’s politics.
To my mind, minimalism in architecture has its basis in ‘conspicuous consumption’ (a term coined by Thorstein Veblen in1899[vi]). Apparent simplicity is valued over practicality.


[i] Eugene Delacroix quoted by Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways, Phaidon 2001
[ii] Donald Schön, The Design Studio, (An exploration of its Traditions and Potentials), RIBA 1985
[iii] Alessandro Mendini, Colours: Rem Koolhaas & others, Birkhauser 2001
[iv] ‘Minimalism’, Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, 2000
[v] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, 1980
[vi] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Orig. 1899. pub.Dover, 1994

An M.A. in Design Futures (part-time). Sixty days over two years – of fascinating conversations, occasional polemics, new ideas, unknown territories for thinking, frequent conundrums, learning some methods of academic research and writing. And a diverse, international collection of designers as students.

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