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The Monochrome Trend

Keith Blount on color, or lack thereof, in user interfaces:

I learned something about the way my brain works that I hadn’t hitherto ever had to think about: my brain is an awful lot faster at processing colours than it is at processing shapes.

I’ve felt this way for awhile about modern UI design trend to “drain the color” from UI, to borrow Blount’s phrase. I really like color and when used tastefully and correctly I find it to be a wonderful usability aid.1 It’s nice to hear I’m not the only one that feels this way.

In Mathis’ link to Blount, he pulls a quote from his own book, which in turn quotes Colin Ware (I’m dangerously close to Inception-level quote recursion at this point!):

In [his book] Information Visualization, Colin Ware notes that color is “preattentively processed,” meaning that we identify color before we give it conscious attention. In other words, when we look at a user interface, we can find and identify user interface elements with a specific color really quickly and easily.

On a related note, I have noticed I also have trouble with UI elements that are text-only with no color or icon hint. For example, the bookmarks bar in Safari, which eschews displaying favicons in favor of text alone, is maddening to me because I naturally look for an icon or color of some kind when looking through the links. There are probably differences in the psychology of this compared to color, but I wonder if there is experimental evidence that supports this notion that icons, color, or shape are easier to recognize quickly than words. This paper from Microsoft typography seems to indicate that we do indeed recognize words by their shape, though the prevailing scientific beliefs around the exact mechanics of that recognition have undergone some changes over the years. Interesting stuff.


  1. The fact that my current site design arguably does not use color ‘tastefully’ or ‘correctly’ is not lost on me. I realize that the current ‘unicorn vomit’ color explosion is probably overkill and needs some adjustment. 

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