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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Can colors be considered good, or bad or ugly? Maybe not in any absolute sense, but there are instances within which we might assign such adjectives. Lets start with ‘the Good’. There are certainly some colors that can be considered good, or at least better, than others, especially when it comes to utilitarian needs; warning signs (on roads, labels etc.) that are grey or brown might not be as good as red or yellow, and advertising and marketing firms continually rely on their ability to choose the correct (good) color, to stay in business. But there are also some very specific and unusual instances where the good is not always so obvious - orange cars for example.

Toyota Corolla. 1972

According to the data crunching startup Kaggle [1], if you are in the market for a used car, and your highest priority is not to get a lemon, then you can do no better than choosing an orange car! Why? Because people who buy new orange cars, tend to select the color for very personal and expressive reasons, they want orange. This kind of attachment, statistically means that they will be more likely to maintain and take care of their cars than the average person. In the world of used cars – orange is definitely good. But what about being intrinsically good? That’s not so easy. However, if we substitute the word favorite for good, (assuming that if a color is your favorite you must think it is good) then we begin to get some answers. The Russian conceptual artists Komar and Melamid create art by surveying people and collecting data, which they then used to make artworks. In one project, the Most Wanted Painting series [2], they made the ideal paintings for each country based on the respondents preferences for color, style, subject matter etc. One of the things they discovered was an overwhelming preference for the color blue; every country chose blue as number one! So, blue is probably a strong candidate for an intrinsically ‘good’ color.

United States: Most Wanted Painting. Komar and Melamid 1995

Next, what about ‘the Bad’? Like good, this can be a matter of context – but what if it’s not? For centuries color has been associated with music and the musical scale. It received its most popular conception in Newton’s belief that since there were seven notes in the musical scale, there needed to be seven colors in the spectrum, hence his addition of indigo - to maintain universal harmony [3] .

Newton’s Color Wheel. Opticks 1704

As far back as Pythagoras, harmony has played a crucial role in music, where it was recognized that some notes and intervals sounded good together (consonant), whereas others sounded bad (dissonant). Within the tradition of western music there exists the notorious “Devil’s Chord,” or the augmented fourth (such as F and B), an interval of notes considered to be downright sinister or diabolical. Since color in classical design often relies on intervals of the color wheel to describe harmonic color schemes (triadic, complementary, analogous etc.), how would the Devil’s Chord map onto a color wheel? Would it create an equally evil color combination? I don’t know exactly, and will therefore leave it to the more musically informed to tease out the details of an augmented fourth in relation to the color wheel, but in its most basic form we get opposites or complimentary colors – colors that when mixed, will (theoretically) cancel out all color, or when placed side by side are sometimes considered to be jarring and difficult to look at. It is an interesting idea, but maybe we don’t have to mine the depths of harmonic theory to recognize that the avocado colored phones and pumpkin fridges of the 70’s, were equally devilish!

Which finally brings us to ‘the Ugly’. According to a marketing and research campaign in Australia, which polled over 1,000 people, it was decided that Pantone’s 448C, opaque couché, was to be designated the world’s ugliest color [4].

The color has been described as a ‘sewage-tinged hue’ and even the color of ‘death’. It was discovered in an attempt to discourage smoking by finding the most unappealing color for cigarette packaging. They are happy to report that sales are indeed down, but not everyone was happy. Leatrice Eiseman, a spokesperson for Pantone, denied that there is such a thing as the world’s ugliest color, saying, “We consider all colors equally”.

But being ugly or bad or good need not be antithetical – and I’ll bet that a second-hand car, the color of Pantone 448 C, runs like a gem!


[3] McLaren, K. 2007. Newton’s Indigo, Color Research and Application. Vol.10 (4) pp. 225-229


© 2016 Carl Jennings -

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