Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: Understanding Color

The following was originally published in Technical Communication, Volume 59, Number 3, August 2012.

Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers

Linda Holtzschue. 2011. 4th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
[ISBN 978-0-470-38135-9. 259 page, including index. US$65.00 (softcover).]

Color plays a part in everyday life; designers specifically choose many of the colors. I remember learning about color in third grade; the teacher put the three primary light colors on the overhead projector to prove that color mixes differently as light than as paint. Understanding Color expands on those classes, explaining basics like the color wheel, to more complex issues like the bezold effect and fluting.

Understanding Color covers everything from what makes color to how color interacts to how designers work with color. Most of the book is about color basics, which can be a mind-boggling topic. More than one person has had a hard time wrapping their mind around light. I learned a few interesting facts. For example, the possible effect of mathematical harmony on having seven colors for the ROYGBIV (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet) color wheel even though most people cannot distinguish indigo. “Despite his genius, Newton was a product of the seventeenth century. He may have elected to include seven colors because the number corresponded to the musical notes of the diatonic scale” (p. 135).

Holtzschue’s explanations are thorough to ensure that you use the same vocabulary. She defines that “Lamps are the principal man-made light source. ‘Lamp’ is the correct term for a light bulb. The fixture that holds the lamp is a luminaire” (p. 22). You can always have the glossary to use if you forget what a term means when it
comes up later.

Many graphics illustrate each point. Two illustrations of leaves, one blue/green and the other red/orange, illustrate that “analogous color groupings contain two primaries but never the third” (p. 75). Nearly every page has some graphic illustrating a recent idea that while not always referenced or adjacent to the related section, the caption does clearly define them.

The book’s last two chapters contain information about how color applies specifically to designers. The most important point is that “printed colors, for example, are not exactly the same as product colors; designers strive only to get the closest possible match” (p. 189). Much of the information is on the history of how designers have used color, and this is where Holtzschue discusses how to work with monitors. Yet, it seems a big oversight to not cover color-blindness in a book on color for designers. She may have skipped this information since the book does not cover how to use color. Holtzschue does explain the history of color theory and the expansiveness of the field.

I would have liked information about how to apply the various color ideas in design. A PDF workbook is available that includes a lengthy supply list and involves plenty of variation.

Understanding Color is a great place to start learning about color. It contains the information you need, how color interacts, before you start learning about color theory, and how to use color interactions for an end result.

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