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White, it is said, is the color of clarity and simplicity. A pure white is crisp, clean and may convey ideas like integrity and modernity. Or, as ivory or cream, it may be less immaculate, but more friendly and approachable. Yellow, the essence of light, suggests a lively mind. Green is fresh, orange is optimistic and red, the most physical color in the spectrum, is a signal to act or react; it is provocative, stirring and assertive. At the same time, no color carries a single message. Rather, its meaning alters with the context in which it is used. Equally, our perception of a color changes as it approaches and sits next to other colors, when red is used in combination with green and brown, rather than black and white.

Integral to the design of any object, image or space, color is an element of design that can change our perception of scale and weight, of light and heat. The color itself, and its specific hue, saturation and brightness, acts as a cue that triggers a physical and emotional response, altering our experience of a room as restful or lively and our evaluation of an object, including the level of taste and sophistication it represents. Whether one punctuates a white-on-white room with a bit of bright orange for emphasis or uses color and graphics to identify a brand— color acts as a key detail that can distinguish a place or differentiate a product from all others.

Thus, color functions as a message or a mark of identity. But beyond its usefulness, color also has an aesthetic quality that is distinct from, if not wholly independent of, its symbolic function. A fabric in a misty grey or a luminous green may be seen simply as beautiful, deeply affecting without our quite knowing why or how. The unexpected placement of vivid color or vibrant color blocking may give us a moment of aesthetic delight. The beauty of color is elusive, but it has an extraordinary power to inspire, animate and transform. Through color we recognize beauty not by tracing its lines, but noting its effects; its power to bring us to attention, to elicit surprise or joy.


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There are as many ways to write about design as there are ways to practice it. We can describe, analyze, compare, judge and classify; propose theories about creativity, form and social function. We can characterize design as a language or a way of thinking. Or, we can consider one key aspect of design, the detail. For while a detail may be small in scale—a button, a stitch, a latch, a molding—the subject is not a trivial one. The design detail carries larger concepts no matter its size. It may be less encompassing than the whole, but its meaning is not less deep. Detail makes design not only intelligible, but also memorable and meaningful. Download No Detail Is Small and explore it in detail.

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