Why are non-designers so afraid of the color gray?

If there is one thing that I struggle with when designing for my clients, it’s the debate that usually sparks when I present concepts which use gray as the base color. The argument typically heard is that gray is too dull and drab, and they prefer to see concepts with “lots of color” instead. Don’t get me wrong – I like color. A lot. There’s an art to developing inviting and cohesive color palette which emphasize mood and emotion, and that’s one of my favorite parts about being a designer. However, I draw the line at adding lots of color just for the sake of making something colorful. Especially when it comes to my PowerPoint templates!

Mac OSX gray Finder icons

Figure 1: The controversial gray icons in the Mac OSX Finder

My design philosophy is based around the premise that color needs to have a purpose. I like to apply my color palettes in a way that promotes good usability as opposed to aesthetic reasons alone. For example, the color red should should be limited to alert-type elements, and green usually is left for confirmations and metaphors of “success”. I know that’s an overly simplistic example (for example, I used a lot of red for these generic soda can labels), but I think you get my point. There’s usually a lot of thought that goes into deciding how a color should be used.

The reason for my tendency of using gray as a base color is that by doing so, I can indirectly focus the users attention on what matters. For example, if I’m designing a menu with some very important buttons that are critical to the flow of the user interface, those buttons need to stand out from the rest of the design. If everything else on the screen is as colorful as that very important button, a conflict occurs when there’s no clear indication as to what element is important and what action needs to be taken. By keeping the framework and all less important elements of the UI in gray tones (or other neutral colors), I can use color to draw attention to the things that are most important. My racing game user interface is a perfect example of that.

As a Mac user, one of the most common complaints I hear from others (mostly non-designer types) is: “Why are all the icons in the OSX finder gray? It’s so boring!” (see Figure 1, above). I hear this over and over again, and honestly – it really irritates me. I’ve never heard a formal explanation from the OSX development team as to why they did this, but I think I have a pretty good idea why: it keeps clutter to an absolute minimum, and this is especially critical when doing creative work. No matter what kind of stuff you’re doing (image / video editing, 3d rendering, illustration, etc), you want to focus on your work – and not be distracted by visually strong UI elements. At least I don’t want to.

Honestly, the color gray doesn’t automatically equate to “boring”, “dull”, or “drab”. Used properly, it can enhance the overall user experience of a complex product by helping to define zones of focus. I’m sure this is something that I’ll never have to stop explaining to clients, but no matter – I enjoy defending my philosophy about design and the way I approach my work.

Show Comments

No Responses Yet

Leave a Reply