Two Colors

Few things can be more fascinating and engaging than a hearty conversation. Hours pass as moments as topics evolve from motor oil to politics, kittens to cigarettes. But as satisfying as passionate conversation can be, sometimes it just stalls, failing to gain enough steam to lift off and soar.

There can be many causes for a stifled conversation. It could be that one or both parties are shy or ill, perhaps they are distracted by techno-gadgetry or maybe they just don’t have anything in common. Another reason for poor conversation is awkwardness. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where silence is more uncomfortable than having an awkward conversation, like when the dental hygienist is cleaning our teeth or while we’re on a blind date. In such situations there are certain common superficial comments that creep to our lips.

“How about the local sports team?”

“Some weather we’re having.”

“How about that Internet? That’s really something, huh?”

“What’s your favorite color?”

All of these topics are contrived and vapid, except one. Being asked to choose a favorite color is a much more complex and difficult task than it may seem.

When first asked, we may imagine our favorite piece of clothing, furniture or jewelry, but that doesn’t really tell us about our affection for the color itself. Then we might try to picture an amorphous monochromatic object and try to interpret how we feel about that object – an extremely demanding exercise. It is difficult to discern how we feel about one single color because we have never looked at one single color before. Your black pants look so nice because they go well with your gray sweater, the ebony cabinetry is exquisite because it is accented by the pewter knobs and that leather couch looks sophisticated because of the thick tan rug on which it rests. Basically, when we say we like an object’s color, we really mean that we like that object’s color in relation to the colors around it.

If we ignore the background, the image above depicts a single, solid color. We can argue about shade, about hue, about blue, but to really grasp the effect of this color we must see it beside another.

Now we can see how these two colors behave in relation to one another and more accurately gauge their effect. The colors interact like melody and bass, providing a framework or reference for one another. Each color combination can conjure unique imagery and ignite distinct memory.

These elementary color arrangements are used in many ways, including product packaging, company logos and national flags. Traditional flag designs usually stick to two or three colors arranged in a simple format and rarely incorporate round edges or dynamic shapes.

Sometimes flags break the rules and put a peculiar image in the center of the flag, destining the design to forgotten pages of history.

So why do our brains recognize and remember simple color arrangements? The answer could be that homosapien vision is trichromatic, which means that our eyes have three cone types for transmitting three channels of color. The answer could also be that our brains just don’t naturally remember complex shapes and color patterns. This explains why all but one of the world’s national flags are rectangular – simple things are often the most memorable.

When someone asks your favorite color, ask them what color is beside it.

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