Hue & I: Our Complex Relationship With Color

complex color pattern

Several years ago, during my early adventures as a freelance designer and illustrator, I had an opportunity to land what seemed like a sweet account with a Fortune 500 company. A marketing exec who was drawn to my fine art background asked me to create paintings of office equipment that she then planned to pitch to her team as a new branding/advertising concept.

I was a newbie. I loved painting. I wanted a killer project. Against my better judgment, I spent untold hours creating 3 paintings on spec, with hopes and dreams that they would be brilliant enough to impress the suits who sold the machines and propel my creative career like a rocket.

Alas, the dream was not to be. What killed it? One measly color.

Hold the Mustard!

Yep, mustard yellow did me in. I had managed to create relatively good, lively art featuring an office copier, of all things. It sang! It leapt off the canvas! The exec loved the texture and expressiveness with which I had imbued an inanimate device! But I had chosen a textured background of mustard hues – a color that had, as I was told, "not focus-grouped well" with their customers.

It's water under the bridge now, but when I'm discussing color I always think back to that and shake my head. How do you focus-group a color?? I'm not a fan of focus groups, anyway, but in this case it's particularly nonsensical. Allow me to explain …

Blue Is Not Sad

The Old Guitarist - P. Picasso, c. 1903

The Old Guitarist - P. Picasso, c. 1903

We've all seen posts and memes backed by spectrum pseudo-science that try to simplify color into little digestible bits of meaning. They tell us that certain colors, all by themselves, can make us feel particular emotions or even cause or cure headaches, altering circumstances by their mere existence. You know the drill … Blue is sad. Red is powerful. Green is natural. 

This completely ignores the fact that there are a million different shades and values to be found of each basic hue. Blue not only isn't sad, blue isn't even a thing, really. It's thousands of different things, each with subtle variations and characteristics. Some blue shades may be sad in some contexts (see Picasso), but that is the farthest we can realistically go with any abstract assessment.

If one is inundated by a single color, covering a large visual space, there's no denying it can have a visceral impact. Color does have power. It's almost always subliminal, but it's real. We know, for example, that a place can feel a bit warmer or cooler based on the colors in the environment, and that isn't a made-up thing.

The problem is when we try to explain these effects with no regard to context, color-relation or complexity.

The Music of Color

If we put a color in front of a person and ask them to tell us what they think of it, this will almost certainly fail to mirror the range of various reactions they might have to that color depending on realistic context. Think about it in terms of music. You could not play someone a single note – say, B flat – and ask them what they think of it all by itself. That might be an interesting experiment, but it would do pitifully little to help us understand how that person might experience the same note in various songs, at various volume levels or as expressed by different instruments or voices. Our experience of notes and tones depends on context. Color is exactly the same.

Depending on where and how a color is used, and especially depending on the other colors (or lack of colors) in its proximity, it can come across in an entirely different way. Let's look at some examples.

grayscale with mustard yellow

This single note of mustard yellow doesn't look all that special just sitting there amongst the grayscale. But, in this setting it does at least provide stark highlight and contrast. It's "color sound" is more intense and bright by far than any of the quiet, unassuming notes surrounding it.

muddy hues with mustard yellow

When set in between tones of similar hue but diminished value, our mustard yellow falls extremely flat. I could hardly imagine a worse context. (Poor little lonely, ugly thing.) And yet …

monochrome mustard

Look at all that mustard! Give me a hot dog now!! This dance of related hues draws out subtleties in a stark way. If you look at any of these swatches alone, or in certain other context, they would all mostly appear more yellow, even while in this image some of them come across as green. But in close proximity, the variations cut right to the surface. And notice how happy this example is compared to the ones above!

harmonious color with mustard yellow

Now our little mustard yellow strikes just the right chord within a family of varied tones that combine harmoniously.

What I hope has been made clear here is that working with color is far more complex than most of us stop to realize. Even "mustard yellow" is not a singular, static thing, and we should never attempt to analyze best color choices and application without exploring its dimensional aspects.

Most instrumental musicians will tell you they played for years before they truly began to sink into their instrument such that it became second nature. This is a function of neurology. As we learn and practice, neurological pathways literally thicken and deepen, so that our understanding moves into the primitive parts of our brains. When this happens, things that used to involve analysis before action become much more fluid. My relationship with color has been that way. I was working as an artist and designer for years before it all became a very comfortable, almost automatic instinct. Before then I was able to apply theoretical knowledge and try different things until the right combinations were apparent. Now, my brain is tuned into color, and it no longer requires much thought. It has been like learning a new language, and I so love to explore it.

May we all enjoy a renewed appreciation for the sights and visions in our world and continue to discover harmony in new places.


Printing Basics: Offset vs. Digital

printing paraphernalia

When printing your marketing materials, there are two basic options to choose from: offset and digital. 

Offset printing uses ink applied to metal plates and transfers the inks one color at a time as the paper travels through a series of rollers. Offset printers come in a variety of sizes based on the number of ink colors that can be printed at one time and the size of the sheets that are run through the press. Most offset presses are either 1-color, 2-color, 4-color (usually Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, or "CMYK") or 6-color (e.g. CMYK plus a spot Pantone color and a spot varnish). 

While there have been advancements with ink formulas, the basic technology behind offset printing hasn't changed much in recent years, and it continues to be a great option for printing at higher quantities (typically greater than 500), or when color matching is a high priority. Since the bulk of the expense in offset printing comes from the creation of the plates and the setup of the press, the price per piece goes down significantly as the quantity increases. For example, you may find that the cost estimate for 1000 pieces is only a few dollars more than the estimate for 500 pieces. Turnaround time for offset pieces is usually 7-10 business days but can vary greatly depending on several factors, including the supplier's workload.

Digital printing is evolving every day and is an ideal choice for lower quantities and/or when personalization or customization of each piece is desired. Digital presses typically operate much like a high-end color copier, using toners with CMYK inks to achieve the desired color effects. 

Thanks to recent advancements in digital printing, special print effects like foil stamping, embossing and spot varnish that used to only be available through offset are now achievable on a digital press, as well. Digital printing is usually priced per piece and is not as significantly affected by a quantity discount. For example the estimated cost for 1000 pieces will usually be around double the cost for 500 pieces. Because there are no physical plates to be made, any necessary revisions are relatively easy and inexpensive. 

Happily, digital printing presses have created full-color production capabilities that are much more affordable than in days past! Turnaround time is usually faster than offset, typically 3-5 business days. Since turnaround is quick and low quantities are easy to accommodate, this is a good solution when an "interim" piece is needed, or if a client does not want to store excess materials.


  • More cost-effective for larger quantities (typically greater than 500)
  • Better for color matching, compatible with Pantone inks (PMS colors)
  • Often (but not always) sharper image quality
  • Higher setup fees 
  • Slower turnaround time
  • More extensive paper stock options
  • Printable on larger sheets (good for oversized jobs or ones with extensive folding)


  • Better for quantities of less than 500
  • Great for customizing and personalizing materials
  • Typically has a faster turnaround
  • Ideal choice for invitations and seasonal materials
  • Full-color pieces for much lower cost than full-color offset
  • Bonus:  Now you can add special printing effects like embossing, silk screen, foil stamping, and spot varnish on some digital presses.


When deciding whether or not a job should be offset or digital, the first thing we check is quantity. If quantity is 300 or less, our first choice is always digital. Next, we look at the physical size of the piece. If the flat (unfolded) size is larger than 18"x 22", we usually must print offset. We then consider the client's timeline, budget and any needed special effects, die-cuts or folds.

More recently, the majority of our projects have been printed digitally. Letterhead, business cards, brochures and invitations are prime candidates for digital production. We love the flexibility of being able to affordably order only 100 business cards, for example, until a client's website is finished, when we then add a web address to the card for a second printing.  We do still design many pieces for offset, and we always value the quality and craftsmanship that goes into a fine offset piece. It is a special process working hand-in-hand with account representatives and press operators to achieve refined results on our larger offset jobs.

Whatever your needs, we can always help you find the best solution!

- Kelly

Knee-deep in the Water: Cape Cod Colors

'Tis the season for family vacation, and last week was my turn! My family and I headed to Cape Cod for our second-ever adventure there and had a fantastic time. 

July 12th view overlooking Barnstable Harbor, MA

July 12th view overlooking Barnstable Harbor, MA

The house we rented was, in Real Estate-speak, "a cozy, quaint and authentic cottage with historical charm." It also happened to be just steps from Barnstable Harbor, and I took advantage of our first night there to snap a photo at sunset – a requirement of all beach vacations.

Typically, when I think of Cape Cod, I think of weathered gray cedar shakes, New England blues, tan and white … maybe a pop of red here and there. I was surprised when, upon closer examination of this photo, I found such a bright color palette. There is of course the dusky gray sand, but I was surprised by the vibrant green sea grasses, and the rich lavender and hot coral hues of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean. 

We were greeted by colors everywhere, once I started looking for them: a virtual highway of hermit crabs with a speckled variety of shells, pink and purple granite, moon snails with iridescent pearly gray exoskeletons, blue and green sea glass … And every day a vast display of beach umbrellas created a polka-dotted shoreline. We were even treated with a thrilling and colorful post-4th of July fireworks display right on the beach. Rumor has it that the belated fireworks show was owed to foul weather over the official holiday weekend, but I prefer to think it was cosmically arranged as a celebration of our arrival.

- Kelly