Avoid Bad Design with White Paint?

A few months back, I was decorating my office — and choose the most outrageously-boring colour available…white. Why? Because as designers, we should be very articulate with our use of colour. The colour we see on our screens can appear to be directly influenced with the colours that surround our peripheral vision.

For example, if you are designing a poster for a client, which includes images of white snow, you may end up editing the image with a slight blue tint if your surrounding walls are also blue. Why? Because your eyes will adjust to a alternate white point.

To illustrate this, look at the image below. The green bars at the top should look slightly darker than the ones below (dependent on your screen/monitor). This is due to a phenomenon called metamerism, whereby the surrounding colours directly ‘interfere’ with the appearance of another.

To check that the greens are the same colour, just do a screen grab and use the colour-drop tool in Photoshop or similar program. Cool eh? So the next time you are contemplating decorating your office, I urge you to consider using a neutral colour. Grey is best, but for me, at least white is bright and clean.

Obviously, many surrounding artifacts and images could impair your colour-judgement, so here another three tips (apart from the paintwork) to avoid bad design:

1. Don’t have a colourful desktop background.

2. Don’t have colourful posters or images in plain sight.

3. Don’t stick yellow/pink Post-it-Notes® to your screen-edge.

I’ll be writing some more articles soon about the use of colour in graphic design. Why not subscribe to my feed so you don’t miss them? Do you have any bad experiences with colour whilst designing? Is your office pink with blue stripes? If so, please leave your thoughts below…

23 thoughts on “Avoid Bad Design with White Paint?”

  1. George - LogoDesign.org

    Hmm, I never thought of the effect the colors around you could have on your work before, very interesting.

    BTW, along the same lines, do you have any tips on how to best adjust your monitor so that you are seeing the same lightness/darkness of colors that everyone else sees?

  2. Alex Charchar

    Isn’t it interesting how one man’s studio nirvana, is another man’s nightmare?

    Personally I hate the idea of loading up my computer and having nothing but white hit me in the face.. bright starkness seems so uninspiring..

    Same with no posters or bright colours on the walls — again, while it might fiddle with our perception of white, I’d find it far too sterile and cold.. reminds me of the story (or rumor?) of the US Air Force giving their pilots acid, putting them in a padded, white room, and being surprised when they went crazy instead of seeing all the pretty things the hippies would see in the forest.

    I think we feed of our environments and to have a colourless environment is to have a colourless mind.. but again, that’s just me 🙂

    I do agree with you about the post-it notes on the monitor, bluuuuuuurgh.
    Nice article, I look forward to the future articles you write on the topic 🙂

    Alex Charchars last blog post..Music and the Artist

  3. Andrew Kelsall

    @ George

    I used to have an Eye-One color calibrator to create profiles for my Mac, but it became too time consuming…and I never really saw the benefit. So I sold it on Ebay. Now, however, I just rely on the built in calibration tool in OSX 10.5. Do you use Mac or PC?

    Everyone will see different colors on their screen due to varied manufacturers and models. I thing PC users also see images darker than Macs, or maybe that’s folklaw??

    I think the best you can do within reason is calibrate your screen and work with color profiles. If you get work printed at a particular printer, order one of their printed match-up color charts. Other than that, avoid pink walls 😉

    @ Alex

    I see what you mean about n office being too sterile, although the article was quite a brief account into the ‘extremes’ of problems that can be caused by glaring colors.

    If a designer worked on websites all day, with stark color all around, it wouldn’t make much difference due to the inconsistancy of image display on the web.

    However, if I were spending all day editing snow-clad photos for a prestigious calendar company — and I was color-correcting them in photoshop with an image of muti-colored fish as my desktop background, my perception of white may be altered and reflect in my judgement.

    Personally, I have a great balance. My walls may be white and my desktop shows an image in grey, but I have inspiration around me. These include colored books, a larva lamp, Reese’s Peanut butter themed mug and a crocodile head, yeah really!

    Thanks for stopping by Alex — Lovin’ the Gravatar…

  4. Alex Charchar

    Ahh, see, I was picturing a completely white office without the books, lava lamp or a Reese’s mug and.. um.. a crocodile head, haha.

    I think as long as there is colour somewhere, as a creative, you’ll be able to manage.. it just amazes me when you see some offices and there is zero colour.. it doesn’t let the space have a personality I think..

    and I’m glad you like my dumb-bird logo 😀

    Alex Charchars last blog post..Music and the Artist

  5. Andrew Kelsall

    Hi Alex,

    about the color thing, I agree that having an office personality is very important. I just like to strike a good balance between “Effectively creating design & Creating design effectively”.

    Yeah, I seen your bird logo before, but I couldn’t figure out where. After visiting your own site, I saw one of your comments on CreativeCurio I think.

  6. Kristine Putt

    Nice article, good info. I painted the walls of my office a very boring charcoal grey (bleh) for this same reason, but I guess that doesn’t help if I have pink post it notes all over my monitor! Time to clean up around here. Thanks!

  7. Andrew Kelsall

    @ Kristine

    I must admit, I’ve been guilty of late by sticking green post-it-notes on the front of my iMac, but I haven’t really been doing color-critical work—just large-format stuff. I’ll let myself off this time.

    Grey is a good color for office walls I reckon—but I wouldn’t worry about the pink unless you’re doing color-critical stuff, too 🙂

    Thanks for commenting…

  8. Christopher Scott

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with keeping your office/workspace completely devoid of color. I work in gray/white cubicle hell, and I think it’s amazing the sort of response I’ve gotten from my ‘mates about a single colorful poster I put up. I see where your coming from, and am not arguing your point… but I think for some of us, with no window, or otherwise natural light throughout the day, it’s all we can do to stay sane.

    I have however, configured OSX so that all the application, and UI chrome is colorless…

    Christopher Scotts last blog post..7 Cups Before Noon

  9. Richard

    @Andrew – PCs generally do show a darker, less vibrant colour than Macs, as we have both in the office.

  10. Andrew Kelsall


    I have however, configured OSX so that all the application, and UI chrome is colorless…

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, I suppose that’s the most important thing—as these colors are directly in your line of vision.

    Thanks for your thoughts.


    Yeah, I think it has something to do with the Gamma?? I’ll find out in time for part 2 of my Color Gamuts articles. Thanks for commenting again…

  11. David Airey

    Hi Andrew,

    I was searching around your site to see if it was you who commented on Samsung displays, and how they use the same parts as Apple monitors. Doug of BonFX.com just posted a short piece about Apple, hence my search. Was it your good self? I can’t remember.
    .-= David Airey´s last blog ..Prepress tips for graphic designers =-.

  12. Andrew Kelsall

    @David → Hmm, not that I recall, however I do believe that Samsung is the world largest manufacturer of LEDs, so maybe its Apple using Samsung parts?? I’ve got my eye on one of the newly released 27″ iMacs, although there’s no Firewire 400 I don’t think 🙁

  13. David Airey

    Ah yes, I can see how that reads back to front. I think Apple do use Samsung parts (old news from what I hear), and that’s how I meant it to come across. 😉
    .-= David Airey´s last blog ..Prepress tips for graphic designers =-.

  14. semioticmonkey

    While i can see your points and generally agree with them, the colorful desktop background warning is not something i would give a warning about.
    We (those who work in gfx field) make massive use of full screen mode (PS, AI) and/or use unified colorless chrome (FW, ID, AE, LR, Fl etc) so what’s on the virtual desk is irrelevant. You are not going to see it anyway *while* working.
    Anyway, i like my desk colorful 😉
    .-= semioticmonkey´s last blog ..Don Normans jnd.org / The truth about Googles so-called “simplicity” =-.

  15. lukasz

    wow, never thought about that, its like color collaboration for your brain. ha! now I have one more step in color calibration, uggggg :]
    .-= lukasz´s last blog ..Best Free fonts of 2010 =-.