Yet, there is much more to colour than meets the eye. Literally! Especially when it comes down to using colour in the development of a product or in architecture. “Without matter, colour does not exist, without matter, light is invisible. Thus thinking of matter and form first, and of colour as an aesthetic add on is not natural and does not really make sense,” Aldo Bottoli says. 

Bottoli is a university professor in the design faculty of Milan Polytechnic University. Together with fellow Professor Giulio Bertagna, he is one of the pioneers of Colour Design – a discipline that provides the theory, the methods and the tools to bring colour at the forefront of the creative process. Because colour, in Bottoli’s words, is “an expressive means that needs to be imagined, envisaged, conceived and realised. In other words, designed”.

“The greatest challenge in providing colour with the right positioning within the industrial and architectural creative process is our own perception of it – that, especially in Europe, stems from a cultural background in which colour is naturally connected with the visual arts, with emotions, with self-expression. Hence, colour is seen as a sort of frivolous add-on, as a ‘creative touch’ that livens up an object or a space that has already been defined in terms of forms, proportions, materials, textures and so forth.

“The most recent scientific discoveries are typically ignored, in favour of the old approach. Those discoveries explain to us what colour really is, how we perceive it, and why. This understanding can help us design more ‘human’ solutions – solutions that are in line with our biological, psychological and cultural requirements.”

Colour design is thus a discipline at the crossroad between several areas of scientific knowledge (physics, neurobiology, neurophysiology, psychoendocrinology, psychophysiology) and of design. It aims at the creation of a perceptive harmony between man, nature and the artificial world – be these spaces, architecture or objects. A discipline that Bottoli and Bertagna have developed through processes and tools in order to make it immediately workable and applicable throughout all types of design projects.

The scientific background is of vital importance to support the colour designer in the choice of the best possible chromatic solution to translate the user’s requirements. There are obviously no fixed rules, but, rather, a new type of sensitivity that needs to be developed, together with an understanding of the user’s latent and expressed needs and of the power of colour to respond to them in relation to particular forms, spaces, textures, and materials. By conceiving colour at the forefront of the creative process – at the same time as form – its evocative, emotional and psychological power gets a boost and will develop in total harmony with the overall object or space.

In an architecture that was developed from a chromatic-driven design, the user will find himself “at home”; he will discover in it elements of himself and of his own intimacy. This will bring about a psychophysical wellbeing and a serene perception of himself in that particular environment.

It’s an approach that also has a very strong social value. As a matter of fact, colour design can help requalifying degraded urban areas. By lessening the visual impact of industrial buildings, or roads. By integrating architectural structures within the surrounding natural environment. By revitalising old buildings and providing them with a fresh look. Such urban requalification can be carried out on a relatively small budget, and still obtain remarkable results.

Interestingly, and probably contrary to what many may think, the new harmony that colour design helps to achieve is not a ‘tone-on-tone’ approach. In order to integrate an architecture or a product within the environment it is not necessary to make it ‘visually invisible’ but to underline, through colour, its most relevant features, its value, its role – by creating a situation in which our eye perceives what we want it to perceive and leaves the rest. It’s a sort of optical trick that suggests to the brain a feeling of harmony and balance.

“It’s a bit like seeing a big tree in the middle of a park. We feel it belongs there, and this makes us feel good,” says Bottoli. Which is what design, and colour design, is all about. 

An example of the urban potential of colour design is its use in the development of a railway bridge in the Italian village of Recco.

Three colours were selected. The arches are the elements that are closer to people simply because they are the ones that allow their presence on the architectural structure. For this reason, a particular shade of red was selected, one that is traditionally used for buildings in the region and that is instantly connected in people’s minds with old, historical buildings of value. The ‘brick red’ also gives an impression of solidity and safety because it communicates a sense of weight and dynamic resistance to shocks. Due to its particular wavelength, red is also the colour that stands out naturally when we look at it, and it creates a balanced contrast with the green of the grass that the arcades seem to originate from.

For the supporting structure, a light blue was chosen. In combination with the red, light blue tends to be perceived by the eye as being located further away. On a bright, sunny day, when the sky is blue, the supporting structure (which is rather complicated and perhaps a touch disharmonic) thus tends to act as a background to the red arcades, while when the sky is darker, this particular shade of azure brings back reminiscence of light.

The ochre of the road acts as a ‘golden’ linking element for the red arches. On the one hand it further underlines the solidity of the structure, and on the other it also connects the artificial with the natural (the bridge with the bright light of the sun above it).

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