The Red Queen Color Theory

The Red Queen Color Theory

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By Bob Stein

Published on November 18, 2000

The search for compelling color must always be a struggle. As in fashion, success at one time and place is no help at any other.

“…it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

— the Red Queen character, in Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (as quoted by Matt Ridley in his book The Red Queen)

Matt Ridley’s erudite, engaging book describes a dynamic he calls the Red Queen. It means striving just to keep from losing ground. He points out that in some endeavors, success cannot accumulate. Ridley develops this concept to explain many interesting phenomena, including sex and intelligence. Excellent book, by the way.

Here I’d like to use the Red Queen concept to describe what goes on in your psyche when you color your website, and its relationship with what goes on in the psyches of your users when color makes an impression on them. For one thing, I think the same things go on when you get choosy about what to wear, and when someone looks you over from head to toe. We’re designed to check each other out, as well as to give each other something to check out.

Website color, like clothing fashion, is about appealing, attracting, seducing.
It’s about appearing better than you are, or at least, better than you would otherwise be. There’s a fashion industry in pixels just as fickle as the one in clothing.

Women’s clothing fashion is a Red-Queen race, a competition of roiling variety, a perpetual treadmill in the quest for making a better impression. What’s effective one season, diminishes and is supplanted the next.

Variety in Women's Fashions

Variety in Women’s Fashions

The diversity of cultures and personal values is merely part of the backdrop. At the fore is an individual struggle to stand out, to decorate and adorn so as to maximize appeal. Appeal to whom and for what are different subjects. But undeniably, fashion is about showing off.

Variety in website Color Schemes

Variety in Website Color Schemes

Seeking great color for a website is also a Red-Queen race. It’s about standing out among numerous others vying for user attention. Color that’s effective on one popular site is usually avoided on others.

Color theory is merely the backdrop. At the fore is individual ability to come up with colors that appear to be associated with skill and value.

Undeniably, color choice for a website (beyond the rare application of color-as-information) is about showing off.

People show off in many ways besides clothing of course; wit, altruism, aggressiveness, conspicuous consumption, righteousness, savvy, nonconformism, unconventional ideas, and e-zine articles to name a few. A website shows off in a lot of ways other than its choice of colors, usually by using the following techniques: difficult graphics effects, tricky animations, catchy background midi’s, sarcasm, outrage, righteous indignation, unconventional layout, trash compaction, smiling nubility, smarmy platitudes, obsequiousness toward customers.

If you decide it’s important for your site to make a great impression, and you choose to show off with color, I have a few suggestions.

The color game, like the fashion game, has two facets: the judgment and the struggle. The judgment is a quick opinion, an impression. The struggle is to make a good impression, or–and this is key–to make a better impression than others are making.

Ever since people began fabricating color (working with dyes and pigments as opposed to merely perceiving color in flora, fauna, faces) it has played a part in numerous Red Queen effects. From house paint to hair color to printed money, wherever color is a challenge to produce, the Red Queen makes a competitive arena out of it, a forum for showing off. You inherit the desire to impress using color right along with a tremendously refined and intricate capacity to be impressed by color. Judgment and struggle are packaged together. Use one to crack the other, that’s my central message here. Harness your innate ability to perceive great color in order to find impressive colors for your website.

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The formula is: you’ll know it when you see it; persevere.
I suspect that if color formulas (triads, tetrads, split-complementaries, etc.) are helpful at finding good color, or avoiding bad color, they’re not very helpful, or the benefits are short-lived. It’s natural to seek a lasting solution to a recurring quest. Designers need new colors with every new project, and they sure don’t want to pick bad ones. But there never are lasting solutions with the Red Queen. Only the questing lasts.

Not only must designers come up with a new color scheme for each new site–and site makeover–but subtly the bar will raise, subjective standards will inch up. Formula colors are bound appear less fashionable every year.

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Reverse-engineer your intuition, find color combinations that click for you. This is tedious, but I’ve made a color lab that makes it a little easier. Click on the color wheel to the left, color choices appear to the right. Keep choosing colors until your coolness meter quivers. You’ll eventually get something that looks fantastic. Stuck? A different color lab I made for has a random button. Now, if the Red Queen predicts anything, it would say that random colors must be ugly colors. But I’ve found that if you start with eight random colors and remove most of them (click on the tiny “X”s), especially the garish ones, and maybe add a few others, you can get some surprisingly appealing combinations.

Efficient color trial and error can also take place within web and graphics design tools with these color wheel swatch libraries. The VisiBone2 swatches are included in Adobe® Photoshop® 6 and Illustrator® 9 and Bare Bones® BBEdit®.

What colors make which impressions? I couldn’t begin to fathom. Jill Morton has done some very interesting and entertaining research into those mysteries in her site and e-books. I mainly wish to convince you that the right colors can make a great impression, and that your very best tool for finding them is your own intuition. Feed it every resource you can find.

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It’s to the advantage of other designers for you to believe that you have no artistic eye. In true Red Queen fashion, the harder everyone works, the harder each one has to work to keep up. Throw that submissive sheep mentality into some serious doubt by being free and frank with your own opinions. Notice everything man-made around you, especially color. Rate it. Pretend your opinions are the most refined on the planet. It’s shocking how easily one can fool oneself on this point.

If this seems like a leap, understand that a Red Queen game has to have most people believing they do poorly at it. However it works, success has to be uncommon. There’s no such thing as “winning” a Red Queen game; the whole point is to appear uncommon, to stand out as better than the rest. If everyone gets suddenly good at it, they become even more suddenly not. Taste inexorably outpaces talent. But, just as necessary, success has to be attainable by a few. Talent can’t be too far behind taste. What I mean to introduce is: with your built-in coolness meter, color talent can thrive mainly on persistence.

When your eye is caught by color, indulge. Most of all, get in touch with just how great you think it is. What’s your impression, are you sensing mere artistic competence, or some seriously suave urbanity? If it’s fun to speculate why it looks great, by all means knock yourself out, though I don’t think that’ll help. Advantage comes from reading your coolness meter, not taking it apart.

To develop an “artistic eye,” get used to having strong personal opinions on color. Then invent something that sets off those opinions.

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But wait, how can this work, mastering one’s color judgment in order to advance in one’s struggle to find great color? Everyone has their own unique tastes, right? (Mostly bad. Ha ha.) Well…central to the Red Queen idea is that large numbers of us are essentially playing the same game, sniffing the same breeze, aroused by the same elusive sweet-spots. Performers need an audience just as surely as audiences need a performer. So if audience tastes are not highly synchronized, performers have no hope of mass appeal and will leave the stage. Red Queen game over. Fashion may seem random but it’s very far from it. People’s differences in taste are exaggerated because we’re playing a game of discrimination. What’s amazing is how synchronized tastes are. Innovation, though necessarily rare, when it happens, appeals to many.

Who knows how people’s subjective values get synchronized. It may not do you much good to try to understand the intricate mechanisms. (Whatever they are, the Red Queen will make sure they change.) But pretty obviously, judgments do arise, and they must be remarkably synchronized: When you’re really impressed by something, notice how certain you are that many others will be too.

So, if your fashion judgment is highly synchronized, that means you have a very reliable coolness meter built in. Take advantage of it.


  1. Synchronized is not identical. Tastes certainly vary. My point is people must have a lot of tastes in common. Every single subjective sense you have is shared by many others. Your coolness meter is a very reliable indicator of what lots of other people will think, just not all other people.
  2. Color schemes don’t charm, so much as they make the people associated with them seem charming. Clothes never allure; it’s a well-dressed person that allures.
  3. Context overarches all. A color scheme’s influence can be significantly enhanced or ruined by poor graphics, layout, usability, content, etc. Clothing’s influence can be significantly enhanced or ruined by attitude, intelligence, health, aroma, etc.

If you decide it’s not important to impress your users, go ahead with the formulas, or copy colors from another site, or flip a coin. But if an aura of excellence is worth some effort, then tune into your coolness meter, be persistent looking for color that sets it off, and dress your website to kill.

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Related Topics: Color, Web Design

Bob Stein, is Chief Technology Spelunker of VisiBone, making HTML and color reference cards, charts and mouse pads.