To Hell with Color Coding
By color coding I usually mean assigning a specific color to a section or sub-section
of a web site (I realize that may be a bit of a narrow definition, but bear with
me here.) Mention color coding and I will, unsurprisingly, reply amazon. Now
before I go on let me state that color coding has both positive and negative
implications, but from this posts title it’s pretty obvious I think there’s
more wrong to color coding than good.
Color in general is an important facet of any web site. Different colors have
different connotations: red for warning, green for okay (simple example.) To seek attention designers
might use vibrant and bright colors, while for subtle communication more mid-toned
and pastel colors would be preferred. Colors are known to work subconsciously.
The thoughtful use of color can increase the speed of comprehension for the
user and produce instantaneous associations that are most easily recalled.
In color coding association is the important factor. Steve Krug (in his book “Don’t Make Me Think”) notes that
color coding sections is a very good idea — “as long as you don’t
count on everyone noticing.” Evidently color-blind people will have problems
detecting some color distinctions. Moreover from what Steve Krug observed “a
much larger percentage just are not aware of color coding in any useful way.”
So far I would say color coding is all good — it’s an additional
cue that does no harm, right?
Color adds value and meaning to communication, giving life to the visual message,
intensifying it, making it more identifiable and important. Color plays in important
part in daily life, no one will argue that. People associate themselves with
a particular color, or palette of colors. Color is personality. So if color
is so significant, in life but yet also on web sites, why waste it on color
coding? Personally I think color can be far more powerful in branding.
As I mentioned earlier color can produce instantaneous associations which users
remember subconsciously. But why not use such associations for the brand itself,
rather than sections of a web site? I think branding is far more important than
color coding to the success of a product, service or business. I would much
rather have customers say “Hey, look, that’s company X. I remember
that orange color” than, for example “Hey, that product is in section
Y, the green one. But, ermm, what was that company again?” I think color
has more value in an overall experience than in individual sections. Additionally I think a good interface does not need color coding to help users find their way around or determine their current location. Sidenote: an interesting research would be to user test two versions of the same interface: one full color and one grayscale. The outcome might be predictable, but how significant is the correlation?
Furthermore, for color coding to be effective you need to use neutral shades
for other elements which are not going to be color coded. You don’t want
different items fighting for attention all the time — or have deplorable color combinations. So why is amazon color
coding sections? First they have such a strong brand and high recognition that
they don’t need to be associated with a color. Only a few brands are in
on the internet today, it does not have style. Does it need style? Well, that
is of course a whole different story. As someone who values aesthetics highly
I would say yes, but even I have to admit that at the end of the day I just
want to order my product and have it shipped to my home as fast as possible.
To color code or not to color code, that is the question. I still maintain
my opinion that color has far more impact if used for the overall experience,
rather than sections. Color is a very powerful tool in marketing, branding and
design — use it wisely and effectively. That said, what’s your take
on the subject? To hell with color coding?
This item was posted byon Monday, April 12th, 2004.
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