Color. Power. Velocity

The colors of twenty-first­–century cities are largely determined by the competition among consumer products and commercially produced coatings and finishes, which vie for recognition in ever more visually saturated environments. Not that cities haven’t always been colorful. In a contribution to the architectural color disputes of the nineteenth century, Gottfried Semper cited a description of the clothing worn in the ancient city of Ephesus: “the Ionians have violet-blue, purple, and saffron-yellow pattern undergarments… Their sarapeis are apple-green, purple, and white, at times also as dark violet as the sea.”[i] Ephesus was home to the colorful Temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), and Semper used the passage to demonstrate the deep connection between the color of buildings and of clothing. He also assumed a natural identity between the local, Ionian culture and the particular colors displayed in clothes and buildings, a connection overwhelmed by the power and velocity of global, commercial culture. Even the cities of the Victorian era, which coincided with the “great masculine renunciation” of fashion and the invention of the black business suit, still had their locally specific polychromies. What has changed in the last century is our ability to produce more kinds of color in more kinds of media than any previous generation could have imagined. This hasn’t altered the range of colors that humans can see, but has inspired a parallel revolution in techniques for manipulating color tastes, or at least for controlling the range of colors available for public display. These techniques seek to harness the power of color and control of the particular dynamics of mass color preferences.

Put directly, color is powerful, and power is always contested. Restated in the form of a syllogism: people are visual, color attracts the eye, therefore color has power over people. It could also be the reverse. People seek power, color vision evolved to help distinguish the threat or utility of things, therefore people are visual. Whichever direction we start with, color and power are intertwined, though it is worth getting something clear from the start. One color by itself, even the brightest, is visually boring and slips almost immediately from awareness; our eyes are tuned to detect contrasts among colors, to spot the red berry among the green leaves or the flush on the pale cheek of a potential partner. So in a visually cluttered and competitive world, people, products, and buildings seek memorable color combinations that can be distinguished from their environments. Using tactics as old as eyes themselves, flowering plants, tribal banners, military uniforms, and sports teams all exhibit distinctive color contrasts. And though the eye can distinguish millions of colors, the number of memorable combinations is a scarce resource, limited by perception—think of the puzzling and often weak color combinations of new sports expansion teams—which makes the competition over color even more fierce.

The increasing size of global urban centers has only intensified the pace and sophistication of the struggle for color attention. The population circulating through urban centers has grown dramatically, as has the number of entities competing for their attention, and the variety of channels through which colors are transmitted. It is frequently reported that the average American is exposed to anywhere from hundreds to thousands of commercial messages a day, and those are only the explicitly formulated ones.[ii] Exposure is a weak term and the estimates include product labels passed in a store, pages of classified ads, and the many sidebar, pop–up, and banner ads that hover at the edge of focused attention, but it highlights the challenge faced by manufacturers seeking to brand their products or institutions trying establish a memorable visual identity. With the sheer number of colored experiences being developed and tested constantly, the eyes of the population become both more jaded and more sophisticated.

Excerpt from “Color. Power. Velocity,” New Geographies 3 (Harvard Graduate School of Design and Harvard University Press, 2010).


[i] Gottfried Semper, “Style: The Textile Art,” The Four Elements of Architecture, and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 240.

[ii] Google Answers has a good compilation of these estimates: answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=56750. Among the more cogent summaries was from the Media Guru. “This statistic is only used for ‘hype’ purposes, usually to portray advertsing as some kind of social evil. The Guru has recently heard numbers cited between 3,000 and 20,000. These numbers are ludicrous. When challenged, those citing them will hedge and say they meant ‘informational messages’ or some such and include product labels passed in a grocery store…. The Guru has seen estimates from a few hundred to many thousands. The Guru tends to go along with one of the best accepted estimates, that there are about 245 ad exposures daily, 108 from TV, 34 radio and 112 print. Others estimate 3000, 5000 or more. Even the 245 is ‘potential’ and perhaps only half are real exposures. The higher estimates probably include all marketing exposure including being in the vicinity of product labels or actual products with trademarks visible, such as your car, computer, fax, phone, shirt, pencil, paper towel in the bathroom, etc.” The Media Guru, The Advertising Media Inter Center Website.