The Designer’s Dictionary of Colour by Sean Adams is a new book that considers colour in a slightly different way from most other graphic design publications. I discovered this book in the Stockholm Modern Museet gift shop. Enticed by its bright cover, I loved what I found inside.
Colour is subjective
In the brief introduction to his latest book, Sean Adams reminds designers that colours are subjective; in their perception, associations and application, each of us has a different relationship with colour.
This important point helps set the tone for the way in which Sean explores and discusses colour throughout the book. The Designer’s Dictionary of Colour is intended to be a practical guide, and as such divides its treatment of colour in design into warm colours, cool colours, neutral colours and speciality colours. The reason being that “this separation is connected more to the designer’s creative process than the academic exercise of painting a colour wheel” (p. 10).
I agree with Sean’s approach here, as it not only allows for a more practical and useful book, it also means he is able to explore some of the more interesting and unusual individual colours. Warm colours include butter, coral, orange, purple, red and violet. The cooler colours presented for discussion range from avocado and chartreuse to mint and olive. Neutral colours – beige, black, brown, grey and white – are then followed by the speciality fluorescents and metallic colours which bring the book to a close. Sean also provides a useful glossary of key terms at the beginning of the book, accompanied by diagrams where relevant.
It’s important to highlight one of Sean’s main motivations for writing this book. The Designer’s Dictionary of Colour is intended to increase the designer’s colour fluency and confidence. On one hand this is so they can begin to develop more interesting and relevant colour palettes for each particular project. However, Sean wants to enable designers to communicate their colour choices to clients more effectively.
To describe the logic for using a bright yellow background with terms such as ‘bright’ or ‘nice’ is the first step to rejection and disagreement. To explain that this background colour communicates optimism and warmth based on associations for 10,000 years of human culture will lead to approval.
Colour me happy
Each colour included in the book is explored using the same template. An initial page introduces the colour, its associations, historical applications and cultural meanings. This page also details the etymological roots of the colour name, some colour synonyms (e.g. butter can also be known as light yellow, cream, vanilla) and some famous examples of its use in design. For each colour Sean also provides numerous images of its use in print, from posters and book jackets to cars and cake packaging. These are all captioned with neat summaries of how the colour has been used effectively. At the end of each colour there are two pages of infographics/diagrams showing the colour’s placement on the visible spectrum and full colour palettes using slight variations of the given colour as a base.
The only negative point I can really make about the book is that in general it focuses more on design for print than for screen. I know that it’s a book not a blog post, and so this makes sense in a lot of ways. However, privileging CMYK palettes over RGB ones and talking about techniques like overprinting with little discussion of choosing colours for screen (and the many pitfalls and considerations to be made in that process) means this book has better application for print design than digital. That said, for someone like me who works mostly on digital projects I found lots of tips, advice and useful information throughout that will improve how I work with colour in print projects.
A dictionary is by its nature definitive, and although I enjoyed immersing myself in each of the colours chosen by Sean these were (as he points out early on) subjective choices, and by necessity a limited range. However, I think the book successfully equips the reader with a framework through which to analyse and explore whichever particular hue they choose as their subject. Any good foundational text is a starting point through which to conduct further investigation into a given topic. What The Designer’s Dictionary of Colour does so well is provide a neat balance between inspiration and insight that will reduce anxiety and increase excitement for both designer and client when it comes to making confident colour choices.
More by Sean Adams
Similar to The Designer’s Dictionary of Colour
Colour Management for Graphic Designers by John T Drew and Sarah A Meyer
Interaction of Color by Josef Albers and Nicholas Fox Weber
Colour: A Workshop for Artists and Designers by David Hornung and Michael James