Coloured plastic bottles (c/o. iStock) From Chromorama by Riccardo Falcinelli

Why designers should care about colour theory

Riccardo Falcinelli’s book Chromorama approaches colour from a wealth of new perspectives, merging history with cultural and societal shifts, industrial innovations and more to ask if colour really matters – and why

When graphic designer and educator Riccardo Falcinelli started out writing his comprehensive book on colour, Chromorama, he’d intended it to be for students – namely, the sort of design and visual perception students he teaches at ISIA Faculty of Design in Rome. What he hadn’t expected was the runaway success of the book: it turned out it appealed to a far wider audience, and he found himself not only selling a tonne of copies, but appearing on Italian radio and TV.

Originally published in Italian in 2017, the book is now available in English, and it’s not hard to see why it proved such a success. Rather than just going deep on the nuances of colour theory, the book looks at the history of colour in an accessible, innovative and very human way. The book’s subheading, How Colour Changed Our Way of Seeing offers some clue as to its stance, which is as much about our attitudes to colour and the surprising things that has informed them over time, from scientific breakthroughs to cultural movements, intellectual shifts, and even industry.

It is a vast subject. The book takes in everything from the Yellow Pages to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers to Nesquik and New York taxis – and that’s just in one paragraph. So what was the biggest thing he learned, putting all these disparate historical periods, psychological theories, and scientific facts together? The answer is surprising. “Probably the general thing that I discovered is that colour is really meaningless,” says Falcinelli. “Each society at different times in history has decided how to make colour speak – and they each have completely different meanings linked to colours – even the same colour. That was something I wasn’t expecting.”

Otto Runge, The Colour Sphere, 1810. From Chromorama by Riccardo Falcinelli
Top: Coloured plastic bottles. Image: iStock; Above: Otto Runge, The Colour Sphere, 1810. All images from Chromorama by Riccardo Falcinelli