Aesthetics: Color Theory: 60:30:10

Here’s another item I saw just recently, which shares with the previous post how a design principle can be crystalized in numbers.

Via Boing Boing, Devin Nealy, 31 May 2022: The 60-30-10 percent rule of color

With clips from 2001, Blade Runner 2049, Parasite, and many others.

This is fascinating and all, but is this just intuition? Is there some serious physical or neurological reason why this ratio, and similar aesthetic principles, should be so effective? (And if intuition, intuition based on *what*?)

I’ve seen the same idea when choosing colors for interior decorating, and for website design. I did some amount of color research myself, looking at “color wheels” and so on, when steadily remodeling Locus Online over 20 years (see thumbnails at the bottom of 20 Years of Locus Online), and when setting up the first Index of Science Fiction Awards. Here’s an example of a tool: Paletton Color Scheme Designer, where you can choose to have three or four colors, choose the first one, and maybe the second, and the tool will offer complements for the remainder.

My current sites, and this one, are mostly white with random highlights from book cover images or thumbnail images for blog posts, and because sites with massive color presence are sorta out of fashion anyway.

— Actually I take some of that back. I spent considerable time on (I spent a year back in 2011 designing it, both aesthetically and in the underlying database structures, before it went online) selecting the colors of the top and bottom borders (the dark blue) and the drop down menu tabs (two shades of green, a shade of yellow for the text). Not following any particular ‘rule,’ but probably using that tool linked above.

My passing thoughts are not so much about the exact quantification of this guideline, but why such complementary colors, or why only a small bit of a highlight color, is so effective. No doubt there have been tens of thousands of color theorists and designers and artists who have studied this, and I am not planning to research their work, but instead offer a couple ideas gathered from my readings about the human mind.

One is the idea that we don’t perceive colors individually; we virtually always see them in a larger context. That’s why there are so many optical illusions involving colors, even shades of gray, that *look* different but that can easily be shown to be the same once surrounding variant colors are removed. And that famous example of the the dress, that appears different colors to different people depending on the cues they pick up about its surroundings and lighting.

The broader issue is that human perception of color involves trying to understand why the mind works the way it does. The starting point is to realize that the mind evolved over millions of years in what we now call the “ancestral environment,” e.g. the savannas of Africa, outdoors all day and night surrounded by nature, no artificial lighting or surroundings, all natural colors (for the purpose of this discussion).

So: the appeal of a close harmonization of colors might simply reflect the natural environment, composed of similar shades of greens and browns and not much else, which still appeals to so many people trying to escape the “dehumanization” of, say, big cities. (And the highlight color blue, in the sky and in lakes and the ocean, overwhelming but remote.)

And the appeal of a “highlight color” is that it attracts the eye, just as the appearance of an unusual color in the natural environment — especially red! — would attract immediate attention. We’re attuned to pay attention to the exceptional, to identify whether it’s a sign of some kind of threat…or just a beautiful rainbow or sunset.

I’m sure I’ve encountered such ideas in the many books about evolution and neuroscience I’ve read (in fact currently I’m belatedly reading Steven Pinker’s massive How the Mind Works), and I can track them down. What’s significant is how our ancient perceptions still guide our aesthetics. How could they not?

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