Feeling blue: why tech designers may want to give the color a rest

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In the tech world, it seems like blue is everywhere. Many of the big-name tech companies—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Skype, Pandora, the list goes on—use blue for their logos, interfaces and design. Of the Apple’s top-25 all-time top free iPhone apps, more than half are blue.

These days, tech companies believe strongly that design is a value-added part of their products. So with all of that attention to design, why are they so blue?

We’re less aware of changes with blue

top-iphoneSarah Allred, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University and a specialist in color perception, says we notice aberrations less in blue. Blue has the shortest wavelength of any color. At very short (blue) and very long (red) wavelengths, the differences between cone photoreceptor responses are smaller, causing people to be less sensitive to small changes in light. The result of decreased sensitivity is increased stability in perception.

That means that very small differences in execution won’t be as noticeable for blue as with other colors—which could make it a good choice for continuity over multiple platforms and diverse branding.

Also, Allred says that lab findings consistently show that people associate the color blue with feelings of “peace and clarity. “

As to why blue elicits peace and clarity, Allred said, “there is less agreement.”

And then there’s the theory that our fondness for blue is evolutionary. “The idea would be that over the course of evolutionary history, our mammalian ancestors who sought out blue were better able to survive, since lots of blue (water, open sky to see potential predators, etc.) indicated a good physical environment,” she said.

Those same evolutionary theories of color preference cause people to associate the color red with negative emotions such as rage and danger—not exactly what you want to promote your social media app or tech site.

Blue is safe

Neil Wehrle, VP of user experience at the NYC incubator Betaworks, and his team have created numerous mobile apps for a wide range of tech companies. He says blue is frequently the go-to color.

“In the Western world, blue has a connotation of stability,” Wehrle said, adding that it’s a self-reinforcing trend. “I think there’s sort of a process of familiarity where designers at some point are used to seeing a blue icon and subconsciously incorporate it into their icon and app design as well.” There may also be an element of: Blue worked for all these other popular companies — it will surely work for my business, too.

Wehrle also points out that different hues of blue have different connotations. “Darker blue is a little more conservative; lighter blue is more energetic.” None of the connotations are bad.

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Do we want conformity?

For a brand-new app that hasn’t been tested yet, blue can be used to help people feel more comfortable with the product. It makes it seems safe and reliable, like all the time-worn blue icons in your app doc. But conformity has negative sides, too.

Especially in the tech sector, where companies are supposed to be revolutionizing the way we live,  the status quo seems lazy, if not cowardly. If companies are afraid to innovate even their design, why should we believe innovations in their actual business are substantive?

Also, using the same color makes it difficult tech companies to stand out from the crowd. Already many apps feel derivative: an Instagram of this, a Pinterest of that. One app or icon appears just like the next.

The hesitance to change, however, is understandable. Complaints shrieked through the Twittersphere when Apple unveiled its new design for iOS 7. But when all the hubub settles, designers will eventually embrace iOS 7, making flat icons and pastel colors the new norm.

Until then, get used to blue.

We’re holding our annual RoadMap conference in November in San Francisco, which will focus on experience design for the tech industry (tickets will go on sale shortly).

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