10 Rules of Color: Attract and Hold Attention

Welcome back! We’re talking color at RockPaperInk. We’ve touched upon conveying information and creating color harmony.

Today, we are offering another rule, showing you how to implement it, and why it’s important to your art and design. Really, it’s because we like to arm you with the knowledge you need to break the rules. Everyone knows that breaking the rules is the best part.

RULE 3: Attract and Hold Attention

As color is a visual language in and of itself, a designer can use it to attract the eye and focus attention on the intended messages in the work. Color can be used to irritate or relax, encourage participation or alienate—it is completely up to the designer. Josef Albers said, “Whether bright or dull, singular or complex, physiological or psychological, theoretical or experiential, the persuasive power of color attracts and motivates.”

Color Physiology Influences Design

Strong visual statements can distinguish a designer’s work and the client’s message from the competition. Using physiological phenomena to get attention will also assist in this goal. Our brains and eyes participate with the designer to either accept or reject a particular design. As humans, we seek balance, especially in terms of color. For example, when exposed to a particular hue, our brains seem to expect the complementary color. If it is present, the combination looks vibrant. If it is absent, our brains tend to produce it to form a balance. The eye naturally recognizes certain contrasts and colors, specifically the colors found in the rainbow spectrum. Perception of other colors, such as muted tertiary colors and tints and shades of spectrum hues, may require an intellectual shift to recognize. Since humans cannot see all possible colors, color perception is evoked by picking up on dominant wavelengths of spectral light. Dominant wavelength is the perceptual idea that gives us the concept of hue (e.g., if the dominant wavelength of an object is red, the object is perceived as being the color red). Therefore, the eye is nearly always drawn to what it can easily perceive. This is the scientific reason why a design utilizing primary colors attracts our attention instantly.

This optical illusion is known as the McCollough Effect. Look at the colored grids, above, for a few minutes. Then look at the black and white grids. There should seem to be a green haze around the horizontal lines and a magenta haze around the vertical lines. The cause of this effect is unclear, but it involves our neurotransmitters. The McCollough Effect demonstrates that color and orientation are two sources of stimulation in humans. Designers must consider not only the particular colors they choose but also their physical relationships, which affect perception and attention. This effect also demonstrates how our eyes and brains seek the complements of colors by creating the sensation of them.

This poster for a performance of the Stockholm Improvisational Theater attracts attention with a bold use of color and shape. The dark indigo-blue juxtaposed with a near-complementary yellow-orange and white creates the optical illusion of depth. Playing with optical dimension, enhanced by color choice, allows designers to fascinate the eye and draw the viewer in. Sweden Graphics


This chart shows the Munker-White Effect. Even though the blue bars are identical (see right), when surrounded by different colors such as white or black, they appear to be completely different hues. This optical illusion also demonstrates a method for obtaining the appearance of more colors in a layout.

Optical Illusions Can Affect Design

Fascinating insights into how humans perceive and interpret color can be gained by studying optical illusions. Although we don’t have a complete model of the way color information gets processed by the eye and brain, scientific research offers glimpses of various phenomenon that can prove significant to our understanding of how color works in design compositions. Visualizations of certain color combinations often play tricks on us, as illustrated in the diagrams on these pages. Many scientists have studied color, and their research can be helpful to creatives. Colors react to each other on many levels, so it is important for a designer to understand this and leverage it.

Another example of the way color interactions alter perception and get attention are these two posters created for the annual Push advertising and design conference. Similar in design, each poster incorporates a bird taking flight from a branch as a metaphor for creative freedom. Yet the posters look quite different due to the number of colors used. The single de-saturated gray-green has a more subtle impact than the bolder near-complementary scheme at left. Brand Integration Group/ Ogilvy & Mather NY


The two versions of promotional postcards for Bossa:Nova , a DJ collective that produces music/dance club performances, designed by Stefan Bucher, illustrate the way a change in color palette can effect mood in design. Different people respond to different color schemes, drawing in music lovers of various types, as in the smooth analogous blue green or the more lively complementary versions below. 344 Design

Color and Human Emotion

Color is used in various forms of alternative medicine; color psychology is one example. This field, a relatively new area of research, is devoted to analyzing the effects that color has on human emotion. Some may call it a pseudoscience, but color psychology has its devotees worldwide. Practitioners of color psychology, which is related to chromotherapy, note that many common physiological effects often accompany psychological responses to certain colors. However, variables such as age and cultural background may also affect responses. Color psychology is of particular significance to environmental graphic designers, whose color choices for installations and environments can greatly affect people’s mood and actions. Color is an active influence on human consciousness. Color has an impact on us because every cell in the body responds to light, and color is light. So we react to it, literally, on a cellular level. Color affects our bodies, our minds, and our moods.

Color can be used in a cityscape to attract attention. The large format banners for the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in northern England are a striking combination of black and yellow. The color scheme evokes heavy industry as well as modern art. blue river design


A bold red is used with the white of the stock in this poster to alert customers to Father’s Day promotions at Boots, one of the United Kingdom’s largest pharmacy chains. Red is one of the most visible colors in the spectrum. It stands out in any context and always demands attention. Lippa Pearce


Based on research of a typical retail environment, color was used to differentiate a new line of Stanley automotive parts. In a strategic attempt to draw attention away from other products, a vivid burnt orange was chosen as the new core color for the brand. Hornall Anderson Design Works


Here, vibrant primary colors are employed to cause the Sony StreetBox line of music products to stand out to German teenagers. Graphic treatments played against urban-inspired imagery and package formats work well because of the strong color palette. Format Design

Come back next week for more rules of color. Also, grab a copy of Color Design Workbook for more cool color theory.