Colour as code – Book chapter

Polychromy Zena O'Connor

Colour as Code: Obscure Dialect or Lingua Franca?

This is the title of one of two chapters I contributed to a recently published book. ‘Researching the visual: Demystifying ‘the picture that worth a thousand words’ was edited by Arianne Rourke and Vaughn Rees,and published by Common Ground Publishing, 2014.

This chapter discusses colour and the way in which it is used in applied design. Categories and attributes of colour are discussed. In addition, tonal variations in terms of keys and chords are also discussed.

The notion of colour as a form of visual code is often assumed. Some consider it a kind of lingua franca; while another view is that colour symbolism is an obscure dialect that does not easily cross boundaries.

While many designers use colour as a form of visual code within the context of visual communications design and visual imagery, this design element also has the capacity to disrupt or obscure meaning. This is because colour symbolism tends to exist on three levels: Individual, Cultural and Universal.

Very few examples of colour symbolism exist at a universal level. Colour symbolism at a cultural levels tends to vary considerably; as does colour symbolism at an individual level. as a result, colour symbolism needs to be applied with care by designers and artists to ensure that the outcome they’re attempting to communicate hits the mark. This book chapter was published in 2014 in the following book:

Edited by Arianne Rourke and Vaughn Rees, ‘Researching the visual: Demystifying ‘the picture that worth a thousand words’ was published by Common Ground Publishing in September 2014.

The illustration features multi-coloured images drawn from contemporary advertising.  Multi-coloured images have recently been harnessed to convey notions such as diversity, variety and inclusiveness as per the logo designs of a number of organisations who target a diverse audience including Google, the Olympics, Toys ‘R’ Us and Motorola.

The book is available from

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