The Dangerous and Colorful Lie in Your Visual Identity Document

This story is based on the chapter “Light and Color” from my book The Articulate Marketing Designer. Click here to learn more about the book and get the “Light and Color” chapter free.

Chances are that if you work at a company, your company has some kind of identity manual. They go by a lot of different names and variations: typography guides, brand guidelines, design bibles, and style manuals are just a few of these names and variations. Some companies have one giant document, others multiple small ones. But the ultimate purpose is to dissect the brand into component prescriptions that can be followed to ensure a consistent look (and feel). If your customer gets an e-mail from your company, you want them to immediately recognize that it’s from your business, without even having to see your company name. By ensuring consistency, you ensure that you can be recognized, a thoroughly valid objective.

The idea isn’t anything new. For as long as humans have been coalescing into groups, we’ve sought ways to make ourselves consistent with our group and recognizable to each other and to outsiders. We’ve adopted flags, uniforms, colors, anthems, seals, banners, you name it. In short, we’ve been branding ourselves with some measure of consistency for a long long time.

Over the last few decades, however, the concept of visual identity has been warped into a worryingly formulaic and potentially destructive form of business pseudoscience. It’s a plague spreading across the entire business world, from the largest corporations to the two-man startups. What’s most frightening is that the people who are supposed to be the experts on the ambiguous and context-driven nature of creativity, we designers, are the ones generating these absolutist and number-thumping documents. I know because I’ve done it.

I actually first realized how ludicrous things have gotten when I was building visual identity guidelines for a small business I was working with. It was never a comfortable thing for me, something about making these documents always made me feel like a charlatan. Then one day, as I was sitting in front of my laptop carefully listing out the precisely selected primary and secondary colors for the company, translating color codes across different color systems, I suddenly remembered that famous checkerboard optical illusion by Edward H. Adelson. In it, the tiles “A” and “B” are the same grey, but look completely different. It’s a remarkable reminder of how our perceptual processes work. If you don’t believe it, grab a color picker and check it yourself:

Tiles A and B are the same shade of grey. Check it yourself!

The truth, as you can see for yourself, is that how we perceive light and its color is at the mercy of the context we see that light in. We know this because we’ve all seen various optical illusions. We know because we’ve seen how our photographs under fluorescent lighting look green, while our own eyes saw something more neutral. The color we see is not a physical property of the real world. It is a construct of our brains, based, often rather loosely, on information collected from the world around us. In physics we are taught that the wavelength of light determines color. But really, the wavelength of light is the wavelength of light, nothing more. It gives our brain something akin to a suggestion on how to construct the color we see. If we had some kind of photoreceptors in our nose that connected to the olfactory centers of our brain, the wavelength of light could have been smells rather than colors.

Yet there I sat, specifying a particular shade of green with dictatorial precision. The implication to any person using that page: if you select this exact color code, customers will see it consistently no matter what. Oh and deviate from the color codes on this page and you risk death.

It was a profound lie. And a dangerous one, because it mistook the nature of visual design for something that it’s not: an absolute and precise science with correct and incorrect answers. It creates a binary mindset. If you are using this color value, you’re using the right color. If you’re not, you’re using the wrong color. That this preposterous concept has embedded itself into corporate design is a reflection of the business world’s attempts to reduce the vast, complex, and rich domain of design into a series of cells in a spreadsheet. Designers play along with it, because in order to be paid, they have to be able to fit into the corporate formula.

In reality, a particular shade of a color, say pink, can look darker when surrounded by some colors, lighter when surrounded by another, crisp in one context, and difficult to read in another. Picking one absolute value for it doesn’t actually deliver what it’s supposed to: consistency. The job of the good designer is to deliver a great design based on context. If the goal is consistency, then the designer should have the freedom to adjust that color to get that to happen, again working back from the context to the solution.

A rough example showing how using the same exact color in a different context (bottom left) yields inconsistent colors, while an quick eyeballed adjustment can improve readability and make the colors look more consistent (bottom right)

Prescribing color codes is only one example, though particularly powerful because we can point to a rich library of physics, biology, and cognitive science to show that it’s completely flawed. And yet open any visual identity guide and you’ll find color prescriptions, promising consistency, but providing absolute values.

Prescriptive absolutism in design shifts the focus away from customer and context, which will reduce the effectiveness of business-related designs. But more importantly for the long term, it discourages experimentation and flexibility which can then lead to stagnation, frustration, and nitpicking. If your design team is getting to the point where they’re pulling out eyedroppers to check that a particular color is correct numerically, you’re sailing in the wrong direction, if not outright sinking.

An organization that treats creativity and design like a quantifiable formula that can be distilled into a set of prescriptions in a booklet is fundamentally missing the business benefits its creative people can provide. Worse, in an age where the customer and their contexts matter more than ever, treating design and creative departments like the finance department may end up doing more harm than good.

If you enjoyed this story, you may enjoy my book The Articulate Marketing Designer.